Internet Content Ratings: It's 2010, and its still broken

What content ratings are all about

The main goal of content ratings, is to allow users, and search engines, to determine the types of content that is on your website so that they can decide if it is right for them.  The three main areas that most content ratings focus on are, child safety, accessibility and suitability for mobile devices (however there are many more content labels that can be placed on your site.)

The main initiative that currently has the most momentum is the protocol for web description resources (POWDER), and powder supersedes platform for internet content selection (PICS). POWDER is a generic method of labeling content, and does not by itself offer any method to label content in a standard way so that programs and people would be able to determine if the content was suitable for them.
The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) has the IRCA (Internet content rating association), and applied it to POWDER.  This meant that the generic method of labeling content, now had specific ways to lable conent for child safe surfing.  Although I have no statistics to prove it,  I think that very few websites actually use this rating system, and if you look a little deeper into the model at FOSI it still relies on a content badge.

Why content ratings are failing
Content badges are a method of adding trust to a website based on a 3rd party organization, who presumably you would trust, and they would offer a badge to specific websites whom they trust, thus allowing you to trust the website, as much as you trust the organization who offers the badge.  You may be familiar with other badges such as BizRate, Verisign, and the Better Business Bureau, that often can be found at the bottom of many commerce sites. 

The problem with badges, is that they cost money.  The organization that supply's the badge, has to police the badge in order for it to be effective.  In order to get the badge, their is usually a cost, in the case of FOSI, the cost to display the badge is a required membership, and according to its website, the least expensive membership is $7,500, and that is absolutely absurd.   Any site that wants to offer safe surfing for children, would have to pay that much just to say they are safe.  I do not wonder why most websites do not have this badge.  

Another point to consider is that unlike ecommerce, where consumers look for the badges, and want to be safe before offering personal information and spending money, there are not that many parents who would refuse to let their children visit, because it does not offer the badge to proclaim it is safe for children. 

Alternatives to POWDER

Another very popular method to offer parents a way to determine if your site is safe is SafeSurf.  SafeSurf offers a way to rate your content, and a plug in for the browser that displays that rating to the parents.  Since its does require a META tag, it does have the ability to be searched by search engines.  But it is still essentially a badge system, however it is free.

I applaud the work that SafeSurf has done, but we are all still waiting for a better way to rate content.  Most websites do not offer content ratings still, and this means that we are still reduced to other methods of trying to decide what content is safe for our children.  Today, much of the web is moving to more a more social model, and this means, that more of the content is user created, and rating it is more difficult.

Content ratings should be easy to use, and must be free

Website developers need a simple free method to rate the content they provide.  Most site developers would agree, that they would like to offer a simple method.  This method must be cross  browser, and should not require any plug-in or 3rd party to work, and it must be free.

This is a very tall order, since without any intermediary, there would be no way to support the policing of the ratings system. 

I suggest, that it would be possible, to crowd source the ratings, if there were a 3rd party, free website that offered the ratings, and they could convince all the browsers to use the rating, similar to how most browsers now show website security for ecommerce, and it did not require any work on the webmaster side.  Google offers something now called sidewiki, and it does require a plug in to work, but it works in a way very similar to how I would envision the rating system to work.  

How it would work
A not for profit website would have to be created, and it would offer functionality to users and webmasters to rate the content of their website.  Browsers would have to be modified to display this rating (and a plug-in could be used to start the process rolling, but it really would need to be replaced by the browser itself showing the rating.)  Websites could also display their ratings using a badge, once they were rated, if they desired to do so, and this may also help to get more support for the content labeling system.

Users who visit a website would see the website's rating (possibly based on the webmasters submission to the 3rd party), or they might see that the site has not yet been rated.  If the choose to, they can then rate the site by answering a few short questions.  This can be done anonymously, or they can choose to have an account with the 3rd party company.

Of course their could be disputes about a websites rating, and this could lead to issues with the circle of trust surrounding the system, but overall I think it would be much better then what is offered now.  I don't want to reinvent the wheel here, and it seems that with content ratings, that has happened many times.  If you know of a better solution, please do let me know. 

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