Site Evaluation Services

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The rise of e-commerce in the late 1990s brought with it many issues related to the security of online transactions, the accountability of online merchants, and the reliability of Internet sites. As a result, many organizations began offering site evaluation services. In some cases, site assessment is conducted for the benefit of customers considering purchasing goods or services from an e-merchant. For example, the Consumer Reports e-Rating service, launched in 1999, evaluates the customer service, ease of use, return policies, privacy, and product offerings of various Web sites. In other instances, a business operating an Internet site may contract an outside evaluation team, such as SurveySite or Cyberfirm, to provide feedback regarding the site's performance. Some companies offer site evaluation services that serve both consumers and businesses. Three of the most well known Internet site evaluators are Gomez, Inc.,, and BBBOnLine, Inc.

Founded in 1997 as Gomez Advisors, Gomez Inc. is a leading Internet research firm that serves both consumers and e-business ventures. Using its "Internet Scorecard," the firm has evaluated more than 6,000 e-commerce sites, in terms of both performance and quality, across a wide variety of industries. The Internet Scorecard rankings, which are posted on the firm's Web site, consist of roughly 150 different criteria points, grouped in categories such as ease of use, customer confidence, on-site resources, relationship services, and overall cost. Each category covers different criteria; for example, ease of use includes overall site functionality, the actual process of completing a purchase, and site navigation. The firm also offers real-time World Wide Web site and transaction performance measurement and diagnostic services via its GomezNetworks arm. An Internet Quality Measurement (IQM) program helps clients evaluate online offerings and compare them against those of competitors; measure and monitor online performance against others in the same industry; and develop online strategies.

Initially, Gomez focused solely on evaluating online brokers, which it did by actually conducting business at various brokerage Web sites. In 1999, however, Gomez began expanding into other industries. Declaring itself the "E-Commerce Authority," the company began compiling scorecards for the Web sites of airlines, apparel retailers, consumer electronics and computer retailers, drug stores, furniture stores, grocery delivery services, hotels, loan and insurance brokers, pet stores, sporting goods vendors, and toy stores. Eventually, and America Online began making Gomez scorecards available on their sites. In 2000, Gomez also developed a Merchant Certification program for online merchants in over 25 industries. Merchants who met eight different requirements, including providing online access to customer support and publishing privacy policies, received a Gomez PASS seal to post on their Web site. Merchants who met more stringent criteria earned a PASS PLUS seal. Within a few months, more than 2,000 online merchants had posted Gomez PASS seals on their sites.

Unlike Gomez, rival BizRate uses data from actual shoppers, rather than staff, to create Internet site ratings. BizRate gathers information from consumers who conduct business at the site of a participating etailer, which displays a "BizRate Customer Certified" seal. Once an online shopper makes a purchase from such a site, a BizRate questionnaire is presented to the shopper. When a questionnaire is completed, BizRate dumps the data into existing information about the e-store, a practice that allows overall ratings to change over time. The benefits of such a system are twofold. Web surfers visiting BizRate can view ratingswhich cover customer support, live phone support, on-time delivery, site performance, order ease, product information, product pricing, order tracking, and privacy policiesbefore making purchases. At the same time, the online vendors can use the information to better meet customer demands. BizRate also sells highly customized and detailed monthly data reports, based on the information gathered, to online retailers for $20,000 per year.

In June of 1996, at the age of 27, Farhad Mohit founded BizRate to help consumers find trustworthy and competent vendors in an increasingly complex online marketplace. Mohit wanted to provide objective evaluations of Web sites for shoppers who wanted information about an online business before making an online purchase. By 2001, had grown into one of the busiest retail hubs on the Internet, second only to online giant More than 7 million different Web surfers visit Biz-Rate each month. Along with evaluating online businesses for consumers, the site also allows users to search for items they would like to purchase and then link directly to the e-tailers selling the merchandise. BizRate ratings are listed on such well known sites as Consumer Reports Online, Microsoft Network, Alta Vista, and CNET.

A third major site evaluator, BBBOnLine, Inc., has operated as the Better Business Bureau of the Internet since its founding in 1996. Browsers visiting BBBOnLine can search for information on specific e-tail sites, file complaints about e-tailers, and request dispute resolution assistance. To let consumers know which businesses meet its standards for fair and ethical online business practices, BBBOnline offers two Web site seals.

Since April 1997, the BBBOnLine Reliability Seal has identified companies that are members of their local business bureau, meet specific criteria regarding truth in advertising, and follow customer service principles similar to those used by traditional Better Business Bureau members. The BBBOnLine Privacy Seal, created in March of 1999, is granted to online businesses that collect, use, and protect the personal information of online customers in a manner approved by the Better Business Bureau. To qualify for the seal, a site must publish a privacy statement that clearly explains what information is being gathered, how it may be used in the future, and if customers may do something to prevent that use. The site must also allow BBBOnLine to conduct a review of its security procedures to determine if they are adequate. By March of 2001, nearly 9,500 Web sitesincluding eToys, CDNow, eBay, and Travelocityhad posted the Reliability Seal, and the Privacy Seal had been granted to nearly 800 firms, including AT&T Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and New York Times Co.

As e-commerce continues to grow, the need for services like site evaluation will likely climb as well. While some analysts argue that once consumers are comfortable with online shopping they will no longer turn to firms like BizRate and Gomez, others point out that new businesses emerge in the online world every day, a fact that seems to favor the future of online ratings firms.


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SEE ALSO:; Computer Security; Fraud, Internet; Gomez Inc.; Privacy: Issues, Policies, Statements