Rating a Web Site: WPI Professor Devises System to Judge Quality

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - How can you judge a Web site before finding out if it gets hits - or gets missed?

Eleanor T. Loiacono, an assistant professor in Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Department of Management, has developed a system to rate Web sites. Dubbed WebQual, the system scores sites based on a dozen qualities. The final tally can reveal why some Web-based companies succeed while others fail.

WebQual isn't based on mere opinion, but on hard data and analysis. The system grew out of Loiacono's Ph.D. dissertation, in which hundreds of students served as testers. Her advisor at her alma mater, the University of Georgia, encouraged her to think globally about her accomplishment.

"Web sites are everywhere, but nowhere is there a valid and reliable instrument for measuring the quality of these sites," said Richard T. Watson, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Information Systems. "WebQual is the first instrument for measuring Web site quality as perceived by the Web visitor, the only person who can truly assess the value of a Web site. I fully expect that WebQual will become a widely used standard in academe and industry."

WebQual isn't one-size-fits-all; rather, it offers a benchmark score for a particular industry, based on how well a site stacks up to similar sites. Its unlimited potential hinges on the correlation Loiacono found between WebQual score and a Web surfer's intention to buy a product or revisit a site.

While other quality testing exists, Loiacono has broken new ground. "This is the first academic one that takes into account management information systems and marketing considerations," she said. "This is about finding out what you need to consider when you are creating a quality Web site."

Loiacono has identified a number of considerations for making that judgment. "The first one is called 'informational fit to task'," she said. "It just means that the information on the Web site meets the needs of the customer."

"Interactivity," No. 2 on the list, reflects the ease of interface between the customer and the Web site. "There's a garden web site, for example, that allows you to pick and choose among plants to put a garden together," she said. "Customers want to see what the garden looks like, so that type of site has more of a visual need when it comes to interactivity."

Trust, a major issue in e-commerce, is another quality dimension. "Trust has to do with the information that is being exchanged on the Web site itself," Loiacono said. "If it's Citibank, you can assume there's some level of trust already there. One way to show you can be trusted is to put your policy on the Web site itself, explaining this is how we treat your confidential information. For example, you can show customers you transfer information in a secure mode."

"Response time" gauges whether the site loads as quickly as you'd expect. "I did interviews with Web designers when I looked at this," she said. "You have to think about the average consumer and what kind of computer that person may be using, which affects how fast something will load."

"Design issues" rates visuals and how easy the text is to read, while "intuitiveness" reveals ease of use and navigation. "A Web site has to use elements you are familiar with and find easy to work with," she said. "You just know, 'If I hit this button, I'll go back to where I was.' Some companies do this by using the same page layout as similar sites."

But too much of a good thing can be bad. That's why Loiacono added "innovativeness" to WebQual. While sites may be easy to navigate if they have a familiar feel, they shouldn't be a knockoff.

One company took the entire look and feel of Amazon.com," she said, adding that the copycats were subsequently disparaged on a Web site devoted to rating Web sites. "To be effective, you want something that people understand and are used to, but you don't just want to copy it. You want to be creative in the ways you use these elements."

Five other categories round out WebQual, helping to determine if a Web site has what it takes to succeed - or to fail.

This spring Loiacono earned a Ph.D. degree in business administration from the University of Georgia after receiving a 1996 M.B.A. from Boston College and a 1992 cum laude B.A. degree in international relations from Boston University. As a result of her work on WebQual, she was chosen as a Fellow at the International Conference on Information Systems Doctoral Consortium, sponsored by Ernst and Young, and was a runner-up in the national George Day Doctoral Research Awards, sponsored by Coca-Cola .

WebQual has been used by a handful of researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom, and as a teaching tool for M.B.A. students at WPI. Its potential, of course, is as wide as the Internet itself. For more information, contact Loiacono by phone at 508-831-5206, by e-mail at eloiacon@wpi.edu or check out her Web page at www.wpi.edu/~eloiacon.

Founded in 1865, WPI enrolls 2,700 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students in science, engineering, management, humanities and arts, and social sciences.