I’ve asked this question at most of the conferences and keynotes I’ve given over the past seven years: What makes you not trust a website? The answers are all over the map but usually boil down to these:
- Too many ads or advertising in general.
- Little or no original content.
- Too much design and too little content.
- No clear indication about the purpose of the site.
- Comments are closed.
- Hard to read.
- Looks spammy.
- You just know.
It’s the last one that intrigues me the most. People just know when they are being fooled. They instinctively know without many clues whether or not they can trust that person, business, or site.
Yet, they ignore that instinctive message time and time again. As P.T. Barnum is often credited with saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It’s a great statement on how easy it is to not trust ourselves when it comes to trust.
As part of my year-long campaign called “Prove it,” I wanted to know what other experts are saying about how to building trust on the web. I wanted to understand better what makes people trust our websites and what we have to say on them.
There are a variety of studies that report you have less than a second to make a good first impression on your site and avoid what DIYThemes calls “Back Button Syndrome,” where people move fast away from your site within seconds of landing on it.
People move through the web FAST. And when they stumble on a site that they feel is “shady,” they slam their back button. (Some people won’t even stick around to discover your “reason why.” They won’t even give your blog a fair shot). Hence the name “back button syndrome.”
The problem is that there are some sites that lose visitors by mistake… These sites aren’t shady… they’re just presenting themselves the wrong way.
And that’s where these trust triggers come into play.
Trust triggers are design elements that help people know immediately that this is a site to be trusted. DIYThemes’ article describes them as a logo that conveys a clear, professional message, comments (or a comment counter) as an indicator that others trust the site enough to interact with it, and scorecards like subscriber, follower, and reader numbers.
Is it that easy to define trust triggers?
Trust Triggers: What Makes You Trust
In “Trustworthiness of Web Sites (2006)” by Audience/Dialogue, Dennis List explains trust on the web this way:
Trust is one of those concepts that seem obvious, but is difficult to explain in detail. Perhaps that’s because the word has a wide range of interpretations, with different people attributing different meanings to “trust”. Because this page is not about abstract philosophy, but focused on website effectiveness, I propose a working definition: that trust in any object can be measured by the willingness of visitors to interact with it in some way. When the object is a web page, that means not just looking at the page, but believing the information presented, or acting on it. (Also note that “willingness to interact” is not quite the same thing as interacting: interaction can occur without much trust, when the alternatives are worse.)
You can think of trust as one form of what are sometimes called “market based assets” – a value that a business (or other organization) has – based not on what it owns, but on what others think of it. In that context, trust goes with awareness level, word of mouth, reputation, image, referrals, and track record. All of these are fairly loose concepts, but they are all related. To that extent, when trust increases, so do those other concepts. It’s plausible (though untested, as far as I know) that increasing trust will also increase awareness – and vice versa.
In 1999, web pioneer, Jakob Nielsen wrote about trustworthiness in web design describing it this way:
The key finding is that trust is a long-term proposition that builds slowly as people use a site, get good results, and don’t feel let down or cheated. In other words, true trust comes from a company’s actual behavior towards customers experienced over an extended set of encounters. It’s hard to build and easy to lose: a single violation of trust can destroy years of slowly accumulated credibility.
He listed design quality, disclosures and transparency, content accuracy, and third-party links, recommendations, and testimonials as key to building trust.
I pause and consider Netflix which had two major bloopers this year which resulted in thousands of individuals losing faith and truth, closing their accounts and spreading negative rants about the company, many of them well-deserved. Their stock dove for cover as investors fled as social media took charge of their public image. Only a few months later, Netflix’s stock is high again and it appears to be business as usual. Big business can survive the court of social web opinion, but it can be a painful and costly path back to trust.
A guest post by Larry Kunz, a computer technology consultant, on I’d Rather Be Writing took on building trust in a corporate blog, a challenge many find an oxymoron. He describes the process of building corporate trust as putting a human face on the company.
Reveal yourself as a person. On a corporate blog it’s essential to show that the corporation is made up of people who have likes, dislikes, opinions, and feelings. Details about yourself—what you like to do, what inspires you, what makes you smile—provide contact points where readers can connect with you. My readers know that I like baseball and that as a kid I was fascinated by space flight. You can reveal a lot without ever crossing the line into subjects that might offend (the proverbial religion and politics) and without endangering your privacy (for example, names of family members).
Do you trust a company more because you feel like you know the people behind it personally? For many, it depends upon the size of the company. It’s easy to trust a company with less than 10 employees. You know you could meet and shake the hand of each of them. That’s familiar. Reach the 500 to 1000 mark for employees and “personal” isn’t usually your first thought. However, with the right tutoring and guide behind a corporate blog by the company president or a representative, the power to influence judgement and keep a human face on the company is very possible, proven time and time again. We didn’t refer to Microsoft as just Microsoft. We called it “Bill Gate’s company.” Same for Apple and the fear for the company after Steve Jobs’ death. A leader of the company can sometimes become more of a celebrity than the company itself.
PIXSYM Blog showcases five top credibility signals including reducing advertising to a minimum, update content regularly, make it easy to use, a clear and specific about page, and verify your claims.
In the section on transparency and having a good about page, I like how they described a key feature in getting people to trust you and your site:
People also want to know who is behind the scenes; Don’t leave it to their imagination because they won’t stick around long enough to figure it out. Create an “about us” page with real people (not stock photos) or a staff listing page and infuse it with your company’s vibe and personality. Also, be sure to make it easy to contact the people on these pages, as this will put visitors at ease and tell them “we’re available”.
Copywriter Susan Greene makes a strong point for creating trust through content, using words to convey messages.
From the second a visitor lands on your website, he’s thinking, “What’s in it for me?” Make sure your copy answers that question. Don’t ramble on about how great you are. Tell the customer what you can do for them. Use the word “you” instead of “we” or “I” as much as possible.
Ideally, your website should tell visitors what you’ve got, what it will do for them, and what they need to do next.
SEOmoz founder Rand Fishkin recently wrote about proving trust on the web with a step by step chart comparing trustworthy and untrustworthy characteristics. He and his company focus on SEO and he describes creating trust through SEO like this:
SEO at its core is about great content combined with earning great references. Sharing openly, honestly and adding value with that content is far more likely to produce returns in the form of links, reputation, references and customers than staying closed and secretive. Participation in a professional ecosystem almost always yields more value than hoarding “secret discoveries,” particularly when those same secrets are being shared elsewhere on a gigantic, relatively level playing field (the web).
My friend, Chris Garrett has a unique perspective on trust. In “How to Grow Your Google Authority,” he looks at blogging authority as a way of building trust.
Authority in general means that people trust you to supply expert insight. The good news is that authorities trusted by human beings are also trusted by Google…Authority in a search context takes into account all the elements of a site then determines a grading on the spectrum from completely authoritative through to no authority at all. The more authoritative and trusted your site, the better you will rank.
His recommendation on creating a site worth trusting? Focus on natural, organic growth, develop a body of work that is valuable and unique and tailored towards people not search engines, and develop a site design build around human-centered design and usability.
In “11 Reasons Customers Don’t Trust Your Web Site,: Small Biz Trends lists some specific hints:
- It’s written like a brochure.
- It’s littered with typos.
- Lacks clear differentiation from others.
- Uses the royal “we” too much.
- Not updated.
- Hard to navigate.
- Uses too much jargon.
- Looks like a template.
- No About Page.
- No physical address or easy to find contact information.
- No third-party endorsements or testimonials.
In 2007, Webcredible released the results of a poll on what makes you trust a website when buying online. The top votes went for https in the web address (implied security), dealing with a reputable, known brand, a professional design look and feel, and contact information readily available.
WebGeekly describes building trust on landing pages from a visual perspective, recommending a clean and professional website design, putting trust logos and symbols near the top of the page as visual clues, and showcasing testimonials and recommendations, long-standing traditional techniques used by many companies.
One of the earliest “how to succeed in blogging” claims was to specialize. The more specific your blog topic and the more you portray yourself as an expert, the more likely the site is to succeed, attract attention, build traffic, make money, and bring people back for more. In 2010, a study by Penn State finally proved that specialization lead to online trust.
Research from Penn State indicates that specialization trumps generalization when it comes to the trustworthiness of online technology…
An experiment involving 124 randomly assigned undergraduate students who were told to buy wine using websites revealed that they trusted sites, recommendation-providing software and even computers labeled to perform specific functions more than the same tools with general designations.
…The researchers also found that users spent less time making a decision when there was a contrast between the source layers, which was an unexpected outcome. They thought multiple layers of specialization would speed up decision-making time. But in this case the quickest decisions were made by participants who used a specialized website on a general computer.
The fascinating study found that heuristics or “mental shortcuts” were part of the explanation.
“Basically, cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts that we use to make judgments that lead to decisions,” Sundar says. “For example, we see a long essay, we immediately think that it is a strong essay. This is the ‘length equals strength’ heuristic. Similarly, we tend to quickly believe statements made by experts or specialists because we apply the ‘expertise heuristic,’ which says that experts’ statements can be trusted.”
Tiny and Mighty asked if you would trust your own site, listing signs of an untrustworthy site as a checklist. The list featured spelling and grammar errors, poor design, lack of content, and lack of contact information.
They also shared a slideshow by B.J. Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University researching the process of identifying what makes a website credible.
The slideshow emphasizes trust going hand in hand with expertise and perceived credibility. According to his research:
People quickly evaluate a site by visual design alone. When designing your site, pay attention to layout, typography, images, consistency issues, and more. Of course, not all sites gain credibility by looking like IBM. The visual design should match the site’s purpose.
He uncovered an interesting characteristic for trust and credibility called “company motive.” Within a second of arriving on a site, people made decisions on the motive of the company and judged the site along with a dozen other criteria.
Fogg developed a way to assess the credibility of a site, how the prominence of information (design and content) mixed with the visitor’s interpretation of the value or meaning of the information equals the impact of credibility. This has become “Fogg’s Maxim for Credible Design:”
To increase the credibility impact of a website, find what elements your target audience interprets most favorably and make those elements most prominent.
The perceived credibility factors help visitors decide whether or not to trust, share, buy, or link to your site. Google and other search engines now take this into account in their page ranking algorithm often referred to as part of TrustRank.
Another study by Southhampton University looked at why people trust one company website or another. They found that the most important reasons for choosing one site over another came from easy to find information, easy to read descriptions, and coherent and simple layout, navigation, and design.
For a site to be trusted it has to convey the idea that there is a team of real, locally based people who have taken the trouble to make it easy for you to do business with them and who are there on the end of a phone to sort problems out once they’ve happened.
Anything clever or that gets in the way of this is at best not relevant and at worst actually gives a contrary impression. That’s not to say that people don’t appreciate elegant use of technology – they just don’t want it pushed into their faces.
What was surprising in light of today’s fascination with all things multimedia and social media was the least important criteria for trusting a website: the size of the company, use of videos, and a sense of community. So many websites and blogs put a lot of work into promoting their staff and making videos to show off their wares or promote them. And many work hard on creating a social environment to open dialog. All are important elements for building trust, but it was surprising how low these were on the totem pole of trust triggers in their research.
In “Building User Trust” by nGen Works, author Carl Smith describes familiarity as the key to build trust:
Keep in mind that everything about the website you build is a promise, from the layout to the content to the font. You’re telling users what to expect every step of the way, and that’s why consistency is so important. As human beings, we pick up on seemingly insignificant changes and then wonder what’s different. Consider how you feel when you discover a note on your windscreen. It’s unexpected, even unsettling, and it makes you pause for a moment. It’s the same online. If a message you’re not expecting pops up, it throws you out of rhythm. Even worse is when a confirmation message that you expect doesn’t appear, leaving you thinking, “I guess it worked”. Think about it: what that email confirmation we all wait on really confirms is our trust — what we expected to happen actually did.
One of the most overlooked aspects of trust on the web is that it’s transactional. If users choose to make themselves vulnerable by entering their information to try your application, they have to believe it’s going to be worth it. Many of us hesitate when we see credit card information being requested for a ‘free’ trial. As much as we knock Apple’s App Store, we trust it. Most apps are cheap and friends tell us which to get. It’s easier to trust something when the downside is minimal.
Keeping a user’s trust is no less important than earning it. Once users have decided to give you a chance, treat them with respect and communicate with them in meaningful ways. Some of the most successful websites use a conversational tone that’s almost like reading an email. Why? Because at the core of ongoing trust is a relationship. If you want a relationship to work, you have to maintain communication. Don’t just talk to talk or to announce random features; make sure there’s meaning for your user. And listen, too, because people quickly turn to Twitter or Facebook to bash companies they feel have abandoned them.
We Trust Sites With Answers
When I ask how you know you can trust a site, the answers come down to these:
- It looks like it has the answers I need.
- It looks like a comfortable place for me to visit.
In other words, it looks familiar and I can tell in an instant that this place has the answers. It might not be on this page, but somewhere in here are the answers I need.
Not surprisingly, Google even has a go at describing a “high quality site” that inspires trust:
Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google’s current ranking algorithms or signals…Search is a complicated and evolving art and science, so rather than focusing on specific algorithmic tweaks, we encourage you to focus on delivering the best possible experience for users. Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content.
The recent changes in the Google ranking algorithm called “Panda” analyzes content for quality by asking the following types of questions in its calculations:
- Is the information in the content trustworthy?
- Is it written by an expert or qualified enthusiast?
- Does the site have similar or related content on the subject?
- Does the article have spelling, grammar, or factual errors?
- Is the article written with humans or search engines in mind?
- Is the content original?
- Does the content fairly represent the point and the facts?
- Is the site a recognized authority on the topic?
- Is the content updated regularly?
- Is the article edited well or appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- Is the article complete and comprehensive?
- Is this an article worth bookmarking, sharing, or recommending?
- Are there more ads than content or do ads interfere with the readability of the content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, book, or encyclopedia?
- Does the article offer citations and links to external sources?
- Would visitors complain if they saw the content?
All good questions. How Google’s algorithm determines all these is a great mystery in engineering and programming. Does your content and site pass their sniff test?
Here are some tips I recommend for improving the credibility of your site and building trust.
- Make it easy to know you and your blog through your About Page.
- Make it easy to verify the accuracy of any and all claims by citing sources and linking to them.
- Make it easy to contact you.
- Make it easy to navigate and find things.
- Build your site around your content not around the design.
- Choose advertising methods and placement carefully and purposefully.
- Update your content regularly or hide dates.
- Keep all visuals (photographs, graphics, and video) clean and professional, not template or stock photography.
- Make testimonials and trackbacks easy to see and find.
- Watch spelling, grammar, and typos no matter how insignificant they may seem.
- Keep comments clean from spam and time-wasting comments.
- Make the site look like it has the answers someone is seeking.
Prove It! Campaign Article Series
- Campaign 2011: Prove It!
- Prove It: It’s Starts With Defining Who You Are
- Prove It: Kym Huynh Exposed
- Prove It: What Makes You Trust a Website?