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Establishing Web Credibility

When doing business online your credibility will play a significant role in how much business you can get and how successful you can be. Just like any brick and mortar store, losing credibility with your online business can be disastrous for business.

In general, people are even more skeptical when it comes to doing business online. Perhaps it's because you don't have the face-to-face contact that shoppers are accustomed to when buying offline. Or it might be due to a distrust of what will happen once you punch in your credit card information and hit the "send" button.

There are a number of reasons why people are distrustful of stores offline and online, but that sense is often heightened when shopping on the web. That makes it ever more important to go out of your way to create a sense of trust and credibility to your online visitors.

Recently, Stanford published their top 10 guidelines to establishing web credibility. While the official lock of credibility won't occur in your visitor’s minds until they have successfully performed a business transaction, there are several things that you can do to bolster your credibility to get your visitors to take that first step at becoming a long-term customer.

Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site.

“You can build web site credibility by providing third-party support (citations, references, source material) for information you present, especially if you link to this evidence. Even if people don't follow these links, you've shown confidence in your material.”

Aside from typical marketing jargon such as "We offer the most effective" or "We provide the highest quality..." which are often subjective, citing references and resources backing up any statistics or claims you're making is extremely important. If you can back up your marketing jargon with a third party source that confirms what you claim, all the better, but if you're going to cite a statistic or quote an authority, you'll enhance your credibility if you link to another published account of what it is you are referring to.

But be careful which sources you site or link to. Many times you'll find sources that are merely quoting other sources, who might also be two or three tiers away from the original source. By then, something might have gotten lost in the translation. Do your best to go back and find the original source of the material.

Short of finding that original source; find the one that is most credible. Don't link to some Joe's website that cited a source from someone else, when you can link to a more authoritative source, even if they are merely repeating information themselves.

Don't forget that often times you can be your own best source. If you are talking about how satisfied your customers are, link to a testimonial page on your site. If you make the point of how well your product or service does, link to another page that backs that up with your own research. Whatever you do, don't make up your testimonials or research. Most visitors can see right through that. It's also not a good idea to try to convince shoppers how good your product or service is without being able to provide actual references to back up your claims. Using the guise of confidentiality or anonymity is weak at best and transparent at worst.

Again, you either have people and results that will back up your claims or you don't.

The more of this evidence you can provide the better and more credible you will be in the eyes of your visitors. But don't go overboard either, by thinking you have to link to every possible resource that you mention. This can lead to a convoluted site that loses its focus and ability to sell. Make sure your references help you make the sale, not hinder it.

Show that there's a real organization behind your site.

“Showing that your web site is for a legitimate organization will boost the site's credibility. The easiest way to do this is by listing a physical address. Other features can also help, such as posting a photo of your offices or listing a membership with the chamber of commerce.”

Showing that your organization is legitimate goes right to credibility. There are several things that you can do to establish the legitimacy of your company.

Posting Contact Information:Make sure your site contains as much contact information you can provide. Phone, email, physical address, fax, etc. Many businesses rely on contact forms and forgo the written contact information. This is a mistake. They more ways a visitor can contact you the better off you'll be in establishing that you are a legitimate company. On the flip side of that, don't post personal addresses, phone numbers or cell phone numbers, as that will give the impression that you're a mom and pop shop that might not be able to be reached during normal business hours. Even if you can't, you don't want to advertise that fact.

Professional Affiliations: Letting people know of the organizations you belong to such as Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau can go a long way to giving your visitors comfort about your business. If you're not a member of either, I recommend that you become one. The BBB in particular allows you to place a logo and link on your site so visitors can view your BBB profile. People trust the BBB, and while membership has its price, the credibility it provides your business is definitely worth the fee.

Articles: Writing and distributing articles about your industry on line (and including a link to your website) is a great confidence builder. If your visitors see that your information has been published in online ezines and other industry news or information sources, they can see that your accepted expertise extends to others in the industry, and is not just part of an on-site smoke and mirrors campaign.

Answering Phones and E-Mail: Nothing destroys credibility faster than phone messages or emails going un-returned. If you wait even a day to respond to a phone call or email chances are the inquiry has already been answered by a competitor and the sale decision already sealed. Having a live person answer the phone does wonders as well, rather than allowing the phone to go to voice mail. Even one-man, part time businesses can portray a significant amount of credibility along these lines by hiring an answering service to take messages. But again, every chance you get, return those calls.

The first step to making a sale is to convey confidence in your organization. Let people know you are a legitimate business intent on meeting their every need quickly, efficiently and professionally.

Highlight the expertise in your organization and in the content and services you provide.

“Do you have experts on your team? Are your contributors or service providers authorities? Be sure to give their credentials. Are you affiliated with a respected organization? Make that clear. Conversely, don't link to outside sites that are not credible. Your site becomes less credible by association.”

What makes you different from your competitors? Is it just lower prices, or do you have something substantially unique to offer? Experience and knowledge often translates to additional value for your customers. If you got it, flaunt it! Let your visitors know why they should do business with you rather than your competition.

It's important to allow your visitors to get comfortable with you and your team. People are more apt to buy from those whom they are more familiar with, even if a competitor seems to have a better offering. You can build this kind of trust by adding bios to your about us pages, talking about your self and your interests and pointing out the organizations you belong or participate in. You can also talk about your particular experience in your industry, detailing where you have particular expertise and demonstrating your accomplishments.

Be careful who you link out to. While linking to other reputable sites and services is a positive, linking out to non-credible websites can easily destroy the perception of credibility. You should only link out to sites that you feel provide a substantial benefit to your visitors. If you're just building a link directory for the sake of a link directory, reconsider. Your reputation can be at stake.

In all, you want to "put your best face forward", showing your visitors you have the knowledge and credentials to provide them the quality and results they expect.

Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site.

“The first part of this guideline is to show there are real people behind the site and in the organization. Next, find a way to convey their trustworthiness through images or text. For example, some sites post employee bios that tell about family or hobbies.”

This is probably one of the most difficult tasks in establishing credibility. Anybody can talk a good game and even be knowledgeable in the product or service, but actions--and results--speak a lot louder than words on the web. Unfortunately, new visitors to your site do not have your past actions to take into account, only what you tell them about your past actions.

This is where you need to humanize yourself and your staff. I'm not going to tell you to take a staff picture with a dog and put that on your website, but there is a reason why companies do this. People like dogs and the dog humanizes the staff and makes them appear to be kinder, gentler, and more genuine.

People want to feel a connection in order to do business. Without getting into the realm of unprofessional, you can use bios to talk briefly about your family, your interests and your hobbies, but use that information to bring people back to why you do what you do.

Your readers may find that they have something in common with you such as number of kids, enjoyments, interests or hobbies. This can help them make that connection to you in that there is something more here than a person out to make a quick buck at their expense. If your visitors can be made to feel like you're like them, then they are more apt to spend their money with you than some other faceless, nameless person or organization.

Make it easy to contact you.

“A simple way to boost your site's credibility is by making your contact information clear: phone number, physical address, and email address.”

This is a pet peeve of mine: going to a website and not finding usable contact information. Using web forms on your site is a great way to gather information, but you really need more than that to be credible. You should give your visitors multiple ways to contact you. Phone number, physical address and email address are all necessary. I suggest that you make your phone number visible on every page. Getting a toll free number is a great help at looking legit as well as it let's visitors know that you're willing to give a little to get a little.

When it comes to ecommerce sites, I personally won't buy from a store that does not have visible contact information. With so many less than reputable stores on the internet, I often won't purchase from a store until I have talked with someone via email or phone. If this information isn't readily available, many purchases will be made elsewhere.

Design your site so it looks professional (or is appropriate for your purpose).

“We find that 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.com. The visual design should match the site's purpose.”

I've written about this extensively in my EMP Book. For many industries, it's OK to have a mom and pop feel to your website, but in no case should you have a website that looks circa 1992. As the look of the average website has improved significantly over the past few years, web users are expecting more from site's they do business with. If your site looks like something that was thrown up on a shoestring budget, you're not giving your visitors much confidence in how you run your business.

You need to look at your competitor's websites. If your site cannot match or surpass them in appearance then you need to consider a re-design. It's tricky though, because much of that is subjective. Usually, though, you can easily tell when not much effort, or thought, was put into the design of a website.

While a more professional looking site may be in order, don't go overboard. Different industries require different styles. Again, check out what your competitors are doing and if there is an overall consistency of tone, you might want to try to find a similar tone with your site. In other words, don't go corporate when your competitors are going artsy. Don't go mom and pop when your competitors are going high tech. Don't create an overly busy website when your competitors have opted for simplicity. But also, don't trust your competitors to always make the best decisions.

You know your audience, do what is right for them, but by all means, give them a site worth looking at and doing business with. If your site has not undergone a major re-design in the past few years, it's probably time to get one underway. Even a minor facelift can do wonders to improving the appearance of your site.

Make your site easy to use -- and useful.

“We're squeezing two guidelines into one here. Our research shows that sites win credibility points by being both easy to use and useful. Some site operators forget about users when they cater to their own company's ego or try to show the dazzling things they can do with web technology.”

How do you make your site easy to use? Clear, concise and consistent navigational elements.

It is important to let your visitors know where they are on your site and how to quickly navigate to where they want to be, or where they need to click to get what they want. There are a few very easy things you can do to accomplish this:

Breadcrumbs: While most users do not utilize breadcrumbs as a navigational element, the simple presence of these allows the visitor to know exactly what page they are on and how deep into the site. They also provide a one click option to get to each backward level of your site.

Contextual Links: Don't rely on your main right, left or top navigation to get your visitors from point A to point B. While these are an important part of your site, using links within the text body of your website helps drive visitors to areas of the site which interest them, or to take the course of action you desire.

Calls to Action: Whether it be contextual links or obvious image that say "click here to…", calls to action let your visitors know where they need to go to get the information they need.

Consistent Navigation: Sites where the main navigation changes location from page to page often confuse their visitors. Confused visitors leave. They don't have time to "figure out" your site; they can just as easily find another site where the navigation is intuitive to helping them find what they need. Make it easy for your visitors as they flow from one page to the next.

The other issue here is to make your site useful. This is relatively easy to accomplish, especially for those who know their stuff. If you're trying to sell a product, don't just offer that product, but provide information that will help the visitor see why they should purchase this product, and why they should purchase it from you.

Providing extra information including features and benefits of your product will help users make the decision to buy. Adding information such as pricing comparisons, warranties, and quality customer service helps users realize why they should purchase from you.

A useful site is a site buyers will return to time and time again. Maybe you attract them with the information as they do their research. Maybe they don't buy from you today, but if your site is one that provides them information that helps them make their decision, you'll be the first site on their mind when they are ready to purchase.

Update your site's content often (at least show it's been reviewed recently).

“People assign more credibility to sites that show they have been recently updated or reviewed.”

Have you ever been to a website and you could tell the content was old and stale? Maybe it wasn't obvious right away, but as you browse through the site you begin to see things that perhaps don't align with other things touted on the website. Or maybe you see a "Valentine's Day Special" still hanging around a weeks after Valentine's Day.

Small thinks like this can really turn visitors off. On the less obvious stuff you have a bit more leeway--until someone actually recognizes the contradictions--but on the obvious stuff, it can be a clear sign that you're not paying attention, leaving a potential customer wondering what kind of care or service they'll get from you.

Sure, you can make the argument that you're too busy working for your customers to worry about the small details on your own site like that, but then that's assuming you get the opportunity to make that argument. The potential customer might have already bolted from your site.

Something else you often see on sites is a "page last updated" blurb with the date. Things like these tend only to be important for sites where information frequently gets dated fast. For commercial sites this can be handy if you need to highlight new products added, but generally there are better ways to do that. The best thing to do is to simply make sure that your content remains current and relevant to your products or services.

Use restraint with any promotional content (e.g., ads, offers).

“If possible, avoid having ads on your site. If you must have ads, clearly distinguish the sponsored content from your own. Avoid pop-up ads, unless you don't mind annoying users and losing credibility. As for writing style, try to be clear, direct, and sincere.”

Let's set the distinction here between commercial sites and informational sites. Ads on informational sites and blogs are fine and a great way to create an additional source of income. Of course, this only goes so far. Even informational sites can lose their credibility if you have too many ads or utilize annoying popup/popunder windows.

On commercial sites, displaying ads that sell similar or competing products/services or directs visitors elsewhere to get what they came looking for, is just plain silly and a terrible marketing strategy. You might get a small stream of "additional" income from these ads, but undoubtedly it will be at your own expense in the long run.

Commercial sites should be focused on selling one thing... your own products or services. Anything on the site that pulls visitors away or interferes with that selling process is a bad marketing strategy that will inhibit your own ability to "sell" your visitors on what you offer.

When writing content for your site, be sure to keep your target audience in mind. If you customers are more technologically savvy or highly educated, then write accordingly. If your audience is the average John or Jane Doe Consumer, then write toward them. Whatever you do, don't write above your audiences head, and don't talk down to them either. While you won't be able to please everybody, knowing your primary target audience will ensure that you are not insulting the larger percentage of your audience.

You also want to be clear about what you offer. Don't write to try and keep your visitors in suspense about what your product or service is. If it's appropriate, you can use sales jargon that enhances the anticipation, but don't string it out for too long, otherwise your visitors will tire of seeking the payoff and go look for your product or service somewhere else.

The best sites are those that are informative, professional and don't resort to gimmicky content or designs. The bottom line is that you should treat your visitors as you would want to be treated.

Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem.

“Typographical errors and broken links hurt a site's credibility more than most people imagine. It's also important to keep your site up and running.”

We all make mistakes. The worst are the little things that are often overlooked but easily correctable. Before publishing new content on your website, take a few extra minutes to run the content through a spell check program. Even if you've made only a few minor edits, don't assume that you don't need to double check your work.

Just like any other form of medium, it's best to get a third party to proof read your site's content. Undoubtedly, they'll find something you missed even after several proof reads of your own.

Aside from spelling and grammar, you should check your site regularly for broken links. Allowing visitors to find broken links on your site is just another way of letting them know that your site is outdated or that you might not have the proper infrastructure to handle their needs. This is as good of a reason as any to leave and purchase from a competitor instead.

Regularly check your site for broken links. There are plenty of online tools that will spider your site and give you a broken link report quickly. Even if you have not made changes to your site in a while, running a broken link check will identify links to external pages which may have changed or been relocated. Regular checks will ensure that all links, both internal and external, are completely functional.

When it comes to credibility, you can't have too much of it. Like trust, credibility takes time to earn but can be lost with the smallest of errors. Do your best to create a website that speaks to your visitor's needs and gives them a good user experience. Credibility won't come instantaneously, but the more you provide to enhance that the more business you'll be able to generate.

About This Author:
Stoney deGeyter is president of Pole Position Marketing (www.PolePositionMarketing.com), a search optimization marketing firm providing SEO and website marketing services since 1998. Stoney is also a part-time instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College, as well as a moderator in the Small Business Ideas Forum. He is the author of his E-Marketing Performance eBook and contributes daily to the E-Marketing Performance (www.eMarketingPerformance.com) marketing blog. (sr)


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