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Study finds fault with advice sites

Many Web sites giving out health and finance advice don't come up to scratch when it comes to credibility and privacy, according to a survey conducted by consumer advocates.

An international study released this week found gaps in the credibility and privacy policies of many Web sites that dispense health and financial advice.

Consumers International, a coalition of more than 250 consumer advocacy organizations, and Consumer WebWatch, a U.S.-based project of the nonprofit Consumers Union, conducted the study through an evaluation of 460 Web sites between April and July.

Among their findings was that nearly half of the health and financial sites in the study failed to warn consumers to consult a professional before acting on their online advice. Just as many sites neglected to inform consumers about the credentials of the advisors, while just over 40 percent failed to indicate the source of their advice at all.

Nearly 40 percent of the sites in the survey that collected personal information had no policy to protect users' privacy. The study also found spotty disclosure about sites' special relationships with advertisers and sponsors, about ownership of the sites and how to reach the owners, and about how often advice and other content was updated.

"Internationally, we see a lot of Web sites clearly are not playing fair when it comes to separating what is supposed to be objective editorial content from economic concerns," said Beau Brendler, director of Consumer WebWatch. "Sites advising consumers to make decisions about their health and personal finances are not doing a good enough job of citing sources, disclosing bias or even telling readers where the sites are located and how to reach them."

A number of "deal-finder" sites, comparing prices on computers, flights and car rental rates, were also among those investigated.

In a separate study, conducted recently with Stanford University, Consumer WebWatch asked people to evaluate the credibility of a Web site. The study found most people ranked visual appeal and design above other factors, such as privacy policies and the credentials of sources, as important indicators of credibility. More than 2,600 people participated in that study, which assessed 100 mainly e-commerce sites.