September 3, 2002, 12:00 AM

Whom do you trust? Spelling and grammar count in web site credibility

Consumers judge the credibility of web sites on pedestrian criteria, says research from Stanford University. Consumers view such things as: Are the words spelled correctly? Does the company have a phone number? Is the parent company credible?

Consumers may like and respond to zoom and pan, be wowed or annoyed by Flash presentation and love to browse through ten dozen sweater options on web sites, but they judge the credibility of a site on far more pedestrian criteria. Like is there a phone number to contact the company? Are all the words spelled correctly? Is the parent company credible?

It’s the details about web presentation that prompt customers to click or bail, concludes a web credibility study by the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University in association with Makovsky & Co., a New York-based research and consulting firm. “This study confirms previous research, but in many ways it expands our understanding of what leads people to believe-or not believe-what they find online,” says B.J. Fogg, who heads the Persuasive Technology Lab.

In addition to a site’s overall usefulness, which was deemed most important, study participants most often judged a site’s credibility on the basis of their own respect for the site’s sponsoring organization, a site’s quick response to customer service requests, an online mention of the organization’s physical address, the timeliness of content, and a telephone number for contacting the organization.

The study was conducted online with 1,649 web users in the United States and Finland from December to February. The average participant was 32 years old, college-educated, with an annual income of $50,000. More than half of participants had been online for five years or more and average 10 hours on the Internet each week.

The participants reacted most unfavorably to sites with pop-up ads, old content, broken links or poor navigation, and links to other sites deemed non-credible. Other attributes that lowered perceptions of credibility include typographical errors, inconsistency between a company’s name and its domain name and a long download time.

But these negative points are not irreversible, says Robbin Goodman, executive vice president of Makovsky & Co. “This study indicates you can improve an organization’s online reputation with a series of simple actions,” she says. “Keep content current and free of advertising influences. Design your site so your audiences can easily find the information they want. Make sure everything is spelled correctly and the links work.”

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