June 20, 2002, 12:00 AM

Well-known brands raise a web site’s credibility, typos kill it

A survey from Stanford University`s Persuasive Technology Lab reports that consumers take brand into account when assessing a web site’s credibility, but lose faith if the small details--spelling, functioning links and up-to-date content--aren’t right.

It’s said the devil is in the details and nowhere is that truer than in designing a web site that consumers believe is credible, says new research from Stanford University`s Persuasive Technology Lab. Customers pay attention to such aspects as mis-spelled words, outdated content, the placement of the privacy policy and broken links in assessing the credibility of web sites, Stanford’s research says.

"The study emphasizes the importance for organizations of embracing their web sites as an integral element of their communications with different constituencies, one that can either enhance or detract from its reputation overall," said Ken Makovsky, president of Makovsky & Co., a business communications firm which underwrote the study.

A measure of the growing importance of brands on the Internet is that many consumers in Stanford’s study ranked respect for the sponsoring organization highly in assessing whether they trust a site. They also listed quick responses to customer service questions, an online mention of the organization`s address, the timeliness of site content, and a contact phone number as important characteristics of a credible site in addition to its overall usefulness.

Further detractors from a site’s credibility are pop-up advertisements, broken links, poor site navigation, links to sites perceived to be non-credible and mixing of advertising with other content.

The Persuasive Technology Lab surveyed more than 1,600 American and European Internet users, with a 55/45 male to female ratio. The average participant was college-educated, early 30s with an annual income of $50,000. Almost two-thirds have been on the web for five years or more and averaged 10 hours of Internet usage each week.

The survey reports that Americans appear to place greater trust in sites that provide valid content and respect privacy than their Europeans counterparts. Americans gave much higher credibility rankings to web sites that offered privacy statements, sent e-mails to confirm transactions, indicated the source of site content or provided credentials for its authors. Women attached greater credibility to web sites with privacy policies, e-mail confirmations of transactions and contact phone numbers than men.

"Certainly it helps to start with a company that enjoys a strong standing in the real world, yet this study indicates you can improve an organization`s online reputation with a series of simple actions," says Robbin Goodman, Makovsky executive vice president who supervises the agency`s technology and interactive practices. "Keep content current and free of advertising influences. Design your site so your audiences can easily find the information and features they want. Make sure everything is spelled correctly and that the site links work."

The Stanford-Makovsky team developed 55 observations to describe a web site`s design, content, performance and ownership, and asked study participants to indicate how each statement affected believability from a score of 3 (high) to -3 (low). The study then ranked the average scores for each statement to highlight the various factors that determined why certain web sites enjoy greater levels of credibility than others.

While a company`s reputation played a factor, the highest scores emphasized a web site`s usefulness and features. Here’s how participants ranked factors:
--The site has proven useful to you before (2.02)
--The site is by an organization that is well-respected (1.97)
--The site provides a quick response to your customer service questions (1.83)
--The site lists the organization`s physical address (1.67)
--The site has been updated since your last visit (1.65)
--The site gives a contact phone number (1.56)
--The site looks professionally designed (1.54)

The lowest ranking scores emphasized the factors that detract from credibility:
--The site makes it hard to distinguish ads from content (-1.9)
--The site is rarely updated with new content (-1.65)
--The site automatically pops up new windows with ads (-1.64)
--The site has a link that doesn`t work (-1.42)
--The site is difficult to navigate (-1.38)
--The site links to a site you think is not credible (-1.38)

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