Monday, October 04, 2004

Establishing Credibility on the Web

How do you know which sources to trust online?

How confident do you feel about purchasing from a web site?

When people tell me that they get a lot of visitors to their web sites, but not many purchasers of their goods or services, there are often at least four potential sets of issues that I raise:

  • Are the people finding your site the audience that you intended to target?

  • Are the products being presented in a way that entices people to purchase?

  • How comfortable are people in conducting business with your site?

  • How easy or difficult is it for people to complete a transaction? Are there roadblocks to sales based upon the way the purchasing transaction is presented?

I want to discuss the third item on that list a little in this post.

One place I often point people towards, when this is a problem are the pages from Stanford University on The Web Credibility Project. They have a pretty good set of guidelines linked to from that page on how to make a site appear more credible.

It includes such items as verifiable testimonials, contact information on every page, listed membership in industry and consumer organizations, and many others.

There's also a number of great reports on the site that describe how the visual design of a site can help establish credibility. How credible a site can appear does depend upon correct spelling, well-written text, professional looking graphics, the presence of links to privacy policies, copyright notices, and many more things that we often take for granted when they are done right, but notice immediately when done wrong.

Lately, I've been getting a number of emails from scam artists on what have become known as phishing expeditions.

Here's an example of one I received recently:

Dear Customer,

This email was sent by the Citibank server to verify your E-mail
address. You must complete this process by clicking on the link
below and entering in the small window your Citibank Debit
Card number and PIN that you use on ATM.

This is done for your protection - because some of our members
no longer have access to their email addresses and we must
verify it.

To verify your E-mail address and access your bank account,
click on the link below:

[url removed]


Thank you for being our customer


The URL that appeared in the email seemed to go to a citibank address online, but really didn't. I have a citibank account, but I've never given them an email address, and haven't set up online access with them. If I had, this might seem somewhat reasonable. But, even citibank wouldn't ask for my PIN number.

I've received similar emails that appeared to come from Suntrust Bank and from Paypal. They didn't. But they seemed realistic.

Scams like these make credibility and trust things that are even more difficult for a web site owner to earn from potential customers.

While I've been suggesting that people look over the Stanford Reports, I decided that it wasn't a bad idea to look at see what some others are doing to earn confidence and credibility online.

Well, one is the use of real names. As Simon Willison noted a couple of months back in a post titled Improving online credibility, the use of a real name by a member in a forum or online message board can boost the credibility of that person. He notes that is encouraging people to use their real names in product reviews, and posting badges next to the names of people who do, so that they might be perceived as more credible by people who read those reviews.

One of the best ways to build confidence as a web site owner providing goods or services is to encourage people to contact you. I like putting contact information on every page of a business site. A good place for it is at the bottom of pages.

That's not only an email address, but also a phone number and a mailing address. On the front page of a site, it oftn makes sense to put that contact information above the fold - in a place where people will see it as they scan the page for the first time. Some other good suggestions are in this Site Point article - The Lost Art of Conversation - Encouraging Contact Online

I mentioned in the last paragraph that a quick scan of a homepage is an important time for someone to see information like an address. Well, it helps for people to see even more there:

  • A link to a privacy policy is essential. It tells people what you will do with their contact information if they do contact you.

  • Information about the business needs to be front and center. It doesn't need to be as detailed as an "About us" page would be, but it needs to be enough so that people might be interested in reading that "About us" page.

  • People need to know other information about your goods or services, such as shipping policies, or return policies. If you don't include information about those, it's probably much more reasonable for people to shop for the same products or services offline. At least that way they can get in the face of people who sold them something that didn't work as advertised.

  • I like to know that there's a human being behind a web site. A statement that appears to be written by that person, and a photograph can increase my confidence in a site. An email address for that person, presented in a way that makes me feel comfortable in contacting them boosts my confidence even more.

  • If the business is a member of a consumer organization, like the Better Business Bureau, or a member of an industry association, and I can check with those organizations, it's another means of improving my trust in the honesty of their site's promises to me.

  • Promises? Yes, a company online makes promises to its customers. And it keeps those promises. When Dell tells me that they will ship a computer I've ordered within ten days, it better arrive within ten days. The last few we ordered from them arrived in three or four days. They made a reasonable promise, and they overdelivered. It's a practice that had us going back for more.

  • More promises? When you make a statement involving the price, quality, uniqueness, or other aspect of your goods or services, I'll probably check around to see if there have been any complaints. Usenet, through Google Groups, is a great place to find information about a business - especially if there are complaints. The point though, is not to avoid making promises. The point is to keep the promises that you do make.

There are other ways to display your credibility online. I'll explore some of those later this week. If anyone has any other suggestions about credibility, I'd love to hear them.


Anita Campbell said...

Great article! I too notice small things (or the absence thereof).

One of the first things I look for is a copyright notice and whether it has the current year in it. There are so many dead sites out there -- it's one way I determine if the site is up to date. Amazing how such a small thing is so important.

Now I'd better get going and post the link to my privacy policy....

William Slawski said...

Hi Anita,

Thanks. It's great to see you here.

The small details do make a big difference. I recently looked at a site where there was a concern raised about conversions, and the shop owner did have a page covering all of their polices. It was part of a left-side navigation, and was labeled "store policies."

The page covered privacy, security, shipping, returns, and some other topics. It brushed over all of those topics, but didn't cover them in depth.

I recommended that it be broken into separate pages, and that links to those pages were placed on the bottoms of the pages of the sites. I also suggested that more details be given on each so that people felt comfortable after scanning over the pages - if they even bothered to look at them. The right link in the right place does matter.

People are used to seeing bottom page links on ecommerce sites to privacy policies and shipping policies. Just the presence of that link can make a big difference in confidence as a potential customer scans a page.

There's a lot ot be learned from visiting the pages of a number of successful online businesses, and seeing how they present links to information on their sites.

I'm not advocating a cookie-cutter approach to the design of a site, but rather a development of an awareness of what people look for, and how they shop with confidence online.

And even that copyright notice can make a big difference. :)