Typos and Misleading Ads Lower Website Crediblity

Posted on June 28, 2002

Companies that fail to check their spelling on their corporate websites risk damaging their online credibility just as badly as if they faced financial or legal troubles. And while people uniformly trust websites they consider useful, they also have strong doubts about those sites that carelessly mix editorial content with advertising. These are just some of the findings from a new study of over 1,600 American and European Internet users conducted by Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab and sponsored by Makovsky & Company, a New York business communications firm, which provided financial and editorial support.

"The Stanford - Makovsky study emphasizes the importance for organizations of embracing their websites 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 & Company.

The study highlighted various factors that determined why certain websites enjoy greater levels of credibility than others: "If websites were cars, it would be the trusty Toyota not the flashy Ferrari that would win the Web credibility race," says Stanford consulting faculty member BJ Fogg, who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab. "This study confirms previous research we've done, but in many ways it expands our understanding about what leads people to believe - or not believe - what they find online."

The websites of non-profit organizations enjoyed greater credibility than commercial operations, but in general, how an organization made a profit or accomplished its mission seemed less important than how they presented and managed the information contained within their Internet properties. That's why Makovsky Executive Vice President Robbin Goodman suggests that companies retain a high degree of control over their online reputations.

"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 Goodman, 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 existing reputation played a factor, the highest scores emphasized a Web site's usefulness and features: The lowest ranking scores emphasized the factors that detract from credibility: The study encompassed 1,649 online users (with a 55/45 male to female ratio), primarily from the United States and Finland. The average participant was a college-educated person in his 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 study was conducted through an online survey between December 2001 and February 2002. Fogg's team conducted a similar global study on website credibility in 1999.