Inspiring Trust Online

It’s been etched in our collective psyche as online merchants that some consumers have a tendency to distrust Internet businesses. Many people I know are wary of buying goods or services online.

Why is this?

As a general rule, in the "real world" you can make judgements as to a business owner’s trustworthiness fairly quickly. Would you be more likely to buy a watch, for example, from a neat, clean, little Mom ‘n Pop store or from a shifty character on a street corner whose first question is, "You aren’t a cop, are ya"?

Online, people’s perceptions of your site help them form opinions about your trustworthiness as well.

Simply put, your site should be designed to inspire trust in your visitors. If you’re serious about doing business online, your visitors should be able to tell that the minute they load your home page. It doesn’t have to be stodgy; it does have to be professional.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into detail on how to convey a professional image. What I’ll try to do here is give you a short list of DOs and DON’Ts that I believe will help enhance your online credibility.

Graphics

Use professional looking graphics. If you can’t design them, hire someone else to do it.

The graphic you use for an image map doesn’t have to be a clickable Matisse, but it shouldn’t look like an animal lacking an opposable thumb went to town on your image editing software either.

I’m confident that you’re capable of designing your own graphic elements. You should download an evaluation version of Paint Shop Pro and give it a try; you’ll probably be surprised at what you can accomplish.

In my opinion, patterned backgrounds are better left on personal pages. Black text on a white background provides easy readability and a more professional image. You can use TABLEs, border backgrounds, and/or graphic images to provide a little color.

This next statement isn’t intended to offend anyone, but I think it needs to be said (again, my opinion): the borders and backgrounds with images of money SCREAM rip-off. There is nothing that will make me mouse away at a higher rate of speed than a badly tiled $20 bill background; my scam meter goes off the minute the page starts to load and I’ll promise you, I’m not there to see it finish.

The Ability To Make Credit Card Purchases

I believe it’s essential for most companies serious about doing business online to accept credit cards.

To ease the apprehensions of those who are leery of this form of payment, take a few minutes and put together a page that explains your process for accepting credit card orders online. That way, those visitors who are anxious about using their credit card can learn the security features of your ordering system.

Affiliate Programs And Banner Exchanges

Unfortunately, far too many web site owners think doing business on the Internet means hawking other people’s goods or services.

Don’t misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with affiliate programs, per se. The problem comes in when some site owners are deluded enough to think that they will make money from affiliate programs that are totally unrelated to their own site’s content.

For example, if you operate a site that caters to lumberjacks, you probably aren’t going to get rich displaying a link to "Fluffy’s World" that pays you $.01 every time someone clicks to watch Fluffy snoring on top of the sofa via the live pet cam. Whereas, for example, if you operate a site devoted to The X-Files TV show, you might be able to make some extra money by partnering with a site that sells science-fiction related merchandise that will pay you for referrals.

Please don’t develop a site that is just a collection of links, banner ads, or affiliate programs. Develop your own unique content!

As a business owner, I would be especially cautious of overdoing it with affiliate programs and banner exchanges. What will your visitors think about your product or service if they have to weed through a dozen banner ads or affiliate buttons to get to it? Obviously you didn’t think it important enough to occupy center stage, why should they?

Contact Information

I would venture a guess that perhaps the most common mistake Internet business owners make is not including a way for visitors to get in touch with them. This only adds to the impression some people have of Internet businesses as "fly-by-night" operations.

Would you run a television ad or hand out a business card that didn’t include a way for customers to contact you?

If your site is effective, the visitor will decide "I want to buy it" or "I want to know more". How easy have you made it for he or she to do either of these things?

At a minimum, I would suggest including your email link on every page of your site. I recommend listing alternate methods to reach your business as well. How will you convince anyone to do business with you if you make it next to impossible to reach you?

Keep in mind that the only thing worse than not being able to get in touch with the site owner is contacting the owner and it taking the owner anywhere from one day to one millennium to get a response.

Fresh Content

Have you ever been to a site and got the distinct feeling that a tumbleweed was about to blow across your screen at any moment? Cyberspace businesses go paws up quicker than a Razorback fan will don a hog hat and yell "wooooo pig sooie".

Assure your visitors that this is not the case with you. Update your page frequently and let people know it. You might consider a "What’s New" section or simply a "This page last updated…" line. Do what you have to do to convey the fact that you’re here and you plan on staying.

Referrals

It’s just like in the real world folks; do a good job for someone and they’ll tell their friends. Do a poor job and they’ll tell everyone within earshot at the supermarket, the barbershop, the gas station, etc.

You might consider incorporating a way to provide incentives for people who generate referrals for you. Good word-of-mouth advertising is priceless for developing trust.

General Appearance

This last category is kind of a catchall. Your site’s overall appearance *must* convey professionalism.

This means no spelling, HTML, or grammatical errors. The design should be neat and clean. Correct any mistakes ASAP and cycle out old material.

Instead of spending your time adding the latest, greatest, coolest whatever, work on improving your content and delivery.

Spend some time surfing around to the web sites of the larger companies and pay attention to how they present material (NOTE: I did *NOT* say copy those sites). What kinds of things on various sites instill a feeling of trust for you? What things cause you to want to bolt? Which sites have that professional "look"? What aspects of the site cause you to feel that way?

Remember, people’s perception of your site can make or break your business… what message does your site convey to your visitors?

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