Adverse Selection in Online ‘Trust’ Certifications and Search Results

Edelman, Benjamin. “Adverse Selection in Online ‘Trust’ Certifications and Search Results.” Electronic Commerce Research and Applications 10, no. 1 (January-February 2011): 17-25.

Widely used online “trust” authorities issue certifications without substantial verification of recipients’ actual trustworthiness. This lax approach gives rise to adverse selection: the sites that seek and obtain trust certifications are actually less trustworthy than others. Using an original dataset on web site safety, I demonstrate that sites certified by the best-known authority, TRUSTe, are more than twice as likely to be untrustworthy as uncertified sites. This difference remains statistically and economically significant when restricted to “complex” commercial sites. Meanwhile, search engines create an implied endorsement in their selection of ads for display, but I show that search engine advertisements tend to be less safe than the corresponding organic listings.