Internet Trust Building

Building a Credible Website

Change – positive, strategic, valuable, worthwhile change – doesn’t happen when people like you; it happens when people trust you.

Ironically this realisation came to me as I was dealing with clients with whom I did not have a sufficient level of trust to get the work they needed doing, done. Working for a client without building and sustaining a sufficient level of trust is like an athlete trying to run with their ankles tied together. The skill and ability to do what needs done exists, but the external limiting factor is too great to overcome.

What is this ‘trust threshold’?

There is a certain level of trust required to deliver change and many clients will be willing to offer that trust on the basis of your sales and qualification process. If, however, you don’t back up your words with competence that they can recognise then the trust you have been gifted initially can swiftly evaporate. Once that point is reached trust is difficult to rebuild. Because I am a lover of alliteration I call the level of trust below which it is hard to get things done ‘The Trust Threshold’.

What I recognise now, but did not see at the time, is that many of the clients I was struggling to make headway with were not being obtuse or difficult on purpose. They were not hell-bent on making my job more difficult and they didn’t dislike me. They simply didn’t trust that my recommendations (which would involve time and effort on their part) would make a difference or at least enough of a difference for it to be worth their while. The service they had been sold was not the service I was offering and the disconnect was troubling for them.

Potential problem #1: Lack of synergy between SEO and Sales

Trouble often arises where the sales team and the SEO team do not work in harmony. Phrases like “You should start to see results in about three months” when presented without context, without supporting research and without any bespoke analysis creates a certain expectation for the client. Selling SEO as a means of improving rankings creates a certain expectation for the client. Maybe these guarantees deliver contracts that would otherwise have landed elsewhere, but presenting to an SEO team a client complete with generic, unrealistic expectations is a simple path to the breakdown of whatever trust the client has granted the company on the basis of the sales team’s persuasive promises. When the trust is gone there is a very strong possibility of the client following before long.

Potential problem #2: Agency epiphany

Another situation that can lead to trouble is where there is a change of key personnel or in philosophy at the provider’s end. Clients are not always able to pivot quite as suddenly as an agency may desire. No matter how much effort is put in to explaining changes in approach there is a risk that they will struggle with the new direction. This is understandable given their decision to commit to the expenditure of the campaign was based on the previous set of assumptions and advice. A common question is likely to be “Why are you doing this now?” and it is not uncommon for a client to wonder if the money they have spent up until that point has been wasted. Such a change in personnel or philosophy can cause difficulties in implementing a new strategy and may stymie the process altogether.

Potential problem #3: The value of money

On occasion it can be things done in good faith to win a contract that can ultimately undermine the trust between client and provider. Pricing, in particular, can weigh heavily in the thought-process of a client with business concerns to consider. Charge too little and there is a risk that your work will be seen as unimportant or unworthy of the time and effort you are asking the client to commit to the project. On the other hand, services which are priced at the extreme high end of a client’s budget or perhaps to which they have committed but no longer have the means to sustain can cause exaggerated concerns: “This is supposed to be paying for itself,” or “We aren’t seeing the level of returns we anticipated,” for example. The concerned client can be overbearing or withdrawn, but without confidence in the provider’s ability to deliver, the relationship is in significant danger.

Potential problem #4: Lessons untaught, or unlearned

Not all trust issues – in truth very few trust issues indeed – are squarely the fault of one party. The client will generally not distinguish between the sales team and the SEO team at a company, all considered part of one – collectively responsible – entity. As SEOs we know that it is very much part of our responsibility to educate clients and potential clients as to the whys and wherefores of our processes and our approach. It isn’t good enough to say one thing and do another, or to gloss over specifics and offer a service the client either does not or cannot understand. If we adopt an “I’m the expert, they’ll like it when it works” approach we really ought not to be surprised when we receive pushback. Beyond this, it simply makes too much sense to include clients in the process. It is their business that stands to benefit (or otherwise) from the success (or otherwise) of the campaign. It is their expertise that adds the value for the ultimate users and their understanding that underpins the trust we as providers need to maximise the success of our campaigns.

Potential problem #5: The ostrich ‘solution’

I was fortunate enough to visit distilled’s London HQ last year where they believe communication solves all problems. I would perhaps add the word ‘timely’ to the start of that proposition, but then I guess it wouldn’t be quite so catchy. It is certainly true that an absence of communication can exacerbate or even cause problems, particularly in dealings with clients. Sometimes it can be tempting to ignore problems, bury your head in the sand and hope they go away or the issues magically fix themselves, but the easy option is not going to get the job done when it comes to our line of work.

Google’s Penguin update threw a lot of people for a loop and created schisms between providers and clients around the world. In many cases it resulted in a ludicrous shuffling of clients between link-buying agencies in a single location as each vowed to undo the skulduggery of the others. Those agencies professed their innocence of all such shenanigans, which would have been comical were it not real businesses and real livelihoods on the line thanks to the recklessness and over-aggressiveness of agencies engaged on a good faith basis.

More troubling were the stories of clients who didn’t complain, perhaps didn’t notice, who went ignored, un-serviced, for as long as their payments kept coming in and their provider’s inbox was untroubled; relationships, built up over many years in some cases, left to wither and die to avoid the challenging prospect of honest communication in a difficult moment. For certain there were instances where no amount of communication would have resolved matters, but to not even make the effort or to do the bare minimum could serve only to eradicate what little trust may have remained.

Potential problem #6: Uh, there’s something I need to tell you

One other way to disrupt the trust of a client is to get things wrong, particularly if this happens spectacularly on a big investment. When this kind of mistake is compounded by poor communication, either in the build-up or the aftermath, the damage done to that trust can be irreparable. If the mistake is egregious or spectacular enough it might be that communication is not enough to salve the client’s anger or disappointment, but in many cases a clear and open dialogue can strengthen trust, even where the outcomes are not as anticipated or as desired. There is no mistake so terrible as to engage in some form of cover-up.

Communicate. After that, communicate. Then communicate.

Mistakes are not the only issues that can be aided by a strong line of communication between client and vendor. Problems with expectations, understanding and education can be identified before they become problematic and addressed in a timely and appropriate manner. Confusion can be cleared up and disagreements settled if those involved work to build and sustain the trust that forms the central pillar of any successful client:provider relationship.

There is no way to trick a client into a fruitful long-term relationship. Certainly it is possible to pull the hood over somebody’s eyes – fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me – but all you can achieve is a stay, a delay before the inevitable occurs. Like the loveless couple giving things one more go when both know the other cannot make them happy, an extension to misery borne out of a fear of finality. Clients aren’t pet projects adopted by SEOs to kill boredom. These are real people with real businesses and real pressures, financial or otherwise. They deserve honesty and transparency in their dealings with providers, regardless of what may have gone wrong. Ultimately it is treating people like people that will allow trust to exist and to develop in such relationships.

There is one thing that will definitely help

On a practical level one critical measure is to ensure the SEO team is involved in the sales process at the earliest possible stage. If a client is being asked to part with their funds in exchange for expertise it stands to reason that the experts are included when matters of scope, budget and expectation are being discussed and determined. Building a solid foundation for the relationship between client and provider which is grounded in reality and based on specialist knowledge is vital. This will carry both parties beyond the Trust Threshold at the outset of the engagement and provide the best opportunity to maintain that position.

“The trust threshold”, by Iain Bartholomew

Website Credibility Checklist

The following checklist is from

Go over this list and see which of the following items you could add to your own site to boost credibility.

Web design matters. People judge the book by their cover and your website by its design.
Make your address and phone number visible at all times. Include it in the footer (a must), but depending on your site also in the header (especially if your business depends on incoming calls) and on the sidebar, in the microcopy.
Make it very easy to contact you. ‘Contact’ link should be always in your navigation menu as the very last link.
Message relevance and tailoring. A website that displays relevant information to the visitor is instantly more credible in their eyes. If possible, use content tailoring based on user profile and behavior.
Simple language. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. Write like you talk using the same language your customers do.
Correct spelling. Broken grammar and incorrect spelling certainly make you seem less credible. It’s more forgivable in blog posts, but unacceptable on your home page, product pages and other more static pages.
Link to external websites that reference your organisation. If NY Times, Techcrunch or OC Weekly has written about you, link to those stories. It doesn’t have to be a well-known outlet necessarily (but it helps), what matters is that somebody other than you has written about you and possible said some good things.
Provide staff bios and photos. People don’t trust anonymous websites. If you don’t show your photo, are you hiding something? Is it that you don’t want people to recognize you on the street? People want to look you in the eye, enable it. Always use photos of the actual staff.
Show photos of your office. If you have a real office with real people and stuff inside, I’ll believe you more. You don’t need to make yourself appear a bigger company that you are. Avoid stock photos.
Avoid cheesy stock photos. Nothing says ‘I’m fake’ like suits shaking hands or smiling customer service people with the headset.
Visible return and refund policies. What happens if I’m not happy with your service? People want to know in advance before making a purchase.
Email policy. What will you do with my email address once I give it to you? Will you rent it, share it, sell it, spam people?
All statements and claims should be backed up by third-party evidence, neutral experts or verified (scientific) studies. List sources.
Avoid superlatives. Don’t say you’re the best, no-one is going to believe you anyway. Be specific (“Fastest pizza delivery in town” vs “We deliver your pizza in 10 minutes”).
Detailed product information. 50% of the online purchases are not completed due to insufficient information. Are there enough details for a reasonable conclusion about the information?
Show prices. Many companies (and not just B2B) don’t reveal their prices, and make people get in touch instead. People always want to know how much a product or service costs. If your competitors publish their prices, they’re getting the business.
Show client list. This is social proof – nobody wants to be the only idiot buying your services.
Mention the number of your clients. If you have an impressive number of customers, say it out loud for social proof (“12 457 happy users” etc).
Show a link with a reputable organization. Are you somehow connected to a university, a governmental agency, a research lab, or another reputable organization? Perhaps you’re service provider, reseller, partner, sponsor, advisor or what not. If yes, tell the world.
Use testimonials. Testimonials work well if they’re by real people. Real people means that there are photos, full names, what they do, their employer. Well-known people are even better. Video testimonials are the best.
Case studies of your work. Use case studies to prove the benefits of your services and to show off your expertise. Both make you more trustworthy.
Put customer reviews on your site and elsewhere. People still trust them. It’s the upper hand Amazon has on everyone else.
If you take credit cards online, is it safe? Provide the information about your secure channels, 256-bit encryption and what not.
Display trust marks. Take credit card payments? Prove me it’s safe (256-bit SSL encryption etc). Use The Verisign Seal or equivalent. Have people opt-in to your email list? Put a TRUSTe privacy seal on your site. And so on. Find out what’s a known trust mark on among your customers, and use it.
Maintain a blog or a latest news section. This does 2 things: 1) it shows your site is constantly updated and 2) provides free information to prove your expertise. A note of caution: if your latest news item was published 2 years ago (‘We launched a new website!’) or your last blog post was written a year ago, it communicates that you might have gone out of business. So if you can’t regularly update your news or blog, you can do one of the 2 things: 1) not have one, or 2) remove the dates.
Get an authority recommendation. When Oprah recommends a website, it’s instantly credible. Get someone your audience knows and trusts to “approve your message”.
Articles in (online and offline) publications. Credibility is not only what your website is like, it’s also what people read and hear about you *before* they get to your site. If they’ve seen or even read articles by you in different magazines or newspapers, you have more credibility.
Guest blog. This is basically the same as the previous point. If your users have come across your posts on blogs they read, you’ve more credible to them. Also, you can mention and link to the blogs that have your posts.
A jobs page. You must be a real company if you’re hiring 🙂
Make sure it works. Dead links, non-functional forms and everything else that might seem broken will take away from your credibility.
Have a social media outlet. If you have an active Twitter account or Facebook page, it furthermore shows there are real people behind the organization.
What does WOT say about you? WOT user community has rated over 36 million websites. Some people might check you out there.
Your brand on Google. When they Google you (and they will), what will they find? Besides searching for just your brand, they’ll probably also check ‘[yourbrand] reviews’ and possibly also ‘[yourbrand] sucks’. Make sure you like those search results.
No hype, blinking banners nor popups. If your site looks like a Christmas tree, you need to change that. Make sure the copy is hype-free, nothing blinks and just know that people hate all kinds of pop-ups. Don’t use them unless you want to annoy people
Keep ads to a minimum. Too many ads kill the user experience and communicate that the user does not come first. Might also make you seem desperate. If your main income does NOT come from ads, don’t use them at all.
Website speed. If your website is slow and seems to takes forever to load (10+ seconds), people will certainly get doubts about you and leave. Use caching or a CDN. I personally use Cloudflare and am very happy with them.
Ranking in Google. If you rank high in Google (say in the top 5), you must be there for a reason (Google says so!)
Signs of community. If you have an busy forum, lots of comments on your blog posts or any other visible signs of an active community, you’ll come across more credible – “people must be hanging out here for a reason!”





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