Why Trust Matters & How To Earn It

SEO Success PyramidYour spouse. Your children. Your doctor. Your attorney. These are all people that you have to trust. I could go on: your insurance agent. Your car repair shop. Your babysitter. More to the theme of this article: the web sites you use every day.

Trust is the top block on the SEO Success Pyramid, an article and image I published a year ago to outline my approach to creating long-term online success. Trust is the primary goal of any online marketing effort. All the other blocks in the SEO Success Pyramid, when done right, help build trust. If there’s one thing to learn from the SEO Success Pyramid, it’s this:

Everything you do online should be done to increase the trust that others have in you.

“Others,” in this case, includes both human visitors and search engine spiders. When you have the trust of those two audiences, you’re perfectly positioned for long-term success.

Over the past year, I’ve written specific articles going into more detail on most of the Pyramid’s concepts — things like common crawlability mistakes and small business reputation management. For this article on trust, I’ve asked dozens of peers to help explain what trust is, why it matters in online marketing, and how you can start earning the trust of both users and search engines.

Why Trust Matters Online

trust photoTodd Malicoat: Trust is EVERYTHING to a sustainable business model. You can make a quick buck without building trust, but it will almost always catch up to you.

Jason Falls: Consumers have flocked online in good part because they stopped trusting corporations and brands. In addition to the 5,000 or more marketing messages per day that inundate the average American consumer, there were the Enron, New York Times plagiarism and other corporate issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s that pushed the consumer farther away from a level of trust with the average company. In order to win that back, trust has to be centric in a brand’s approach to its consumers online. They ran away from them and must be wooed back.

David Temple: It’s easier to build trust offline because you have an office, a store, a physical manifestation of your presence. Those signals make it easy for people to trust you. Online you don’t have those same signals so you have to build them.

Debra Mastaler: Your site may be functional from a usability standpoint, but if it doesn’t build rapport or contain credible content, visitors and search bots will leave and place their confidence elsewhere.

Matthew Brown: If you’re Ford or Nabisco, you could easily build trust in your brand by spending enough money effectively through traditional advertising. That same impact isn’t a guarantee in the online marketing world. If you lose your trust online, whether you’re a publisher or a brand or a notable blogger, the audience may move on before you can take action.

Martijn Beijk: Trust leads to happy customers. Happy customers lead to returning customers. Returning customers lead to word of mouth. Word of mouth leads to more visitors. Visitors turn into customers.

How Do You Earn Users’ Trust?

Lisa Barone: You gain their trust by showing that you’re a real person and not some cold, shady company hanging out on the Internet. You gain trust by answering their questions before they even realize they have questions. By giving them all the information they’ll need upfront. By explaining what information you’re collecting, why you’re collecting it and what you’ll do with it when you’re done. By owning up to your mistakes and your faults. By pointing customers to competitors when you can’t give them what they need.

David Wallace: Earning trust with users can be accomplished by providing good web usability and comfortable user experience, disclosing your physical location (if applicable), offering guarantees and return policies, highlighting affiliations such as BBB membership or your involvement in trade associations, and featuring customer testimonies and/or reviews.

hands making a starIan Lurie: First and foremost, use common sense. Good writing, clean design, an error-free site and an easy-to-use checkout/lead process all combine to build trust. Second, satisfy expectations. If your search results and advertising imply you sell grapes, sell grapes. Don’t lure folks in with false or shaky promises. Third, get third-party approval. Use Scanalert or similar services that check your site for security issues. Then place their badge on your site. We’ve seen these badges improve conversion rates, and I’ve also seen a lot of evidence they improve rankings, too. Fourth, don’t ask for unnecessary information. Folks are VERY suspicious. If all you need is their e-mail address to send them your newsletter, don’t ask them for their phone number. If you want them to buy from you, don’t force them to create an account. Any information request that customers see as unnecessary will drive them away.

Jonathan Hochman: A site has to look good, be free of errors, and be easy to use. Whenever I visit a site and the page elements jiggle around as the page loads, or if I see typos, or if the design is unprofessional, that’s a big turn off. I also like to see complete contact info and some information about the ownership and principals of a business. Also, a site should have outbound links to reliable resources, references, partners, industry associations, or other signals of quality. Sites should not link to any sort of dodgy content.

Andy Beal: The best way to earn trust online is to treat users the way you think they expect to be treated–then go one step beyond. When I made my first order with Zappos — a few years ago — I had no idea if the company was trustworthy. Not only did the company deliver as promised, but they also upgraded my delivery to overnight shipping and went beyond what they had initially promised. That earned my trust in just one transaction!

How Do You Earn Search Engines’ Trust?

Aaron Wall: Most signals of quality for search are driven to some degree by trust. People are more likely to read your site, subscribe to your site, and link to your site if they trust you. In an interview Bob Massa once said, “search engines follow people.” If enough people care about what you are doing, then search engines will usually trust it, too.

search engines can be very loyalKim Krause Berg: When someone claims to be a teacher or advisor, I want to know how long they’ve been in the business, and what makes them credible. Search engines do the same thing in their way. How long has a domain been up and stable? What kinds of sites link to your site? These can be testimonials on your behalf. It’s hard to earn back search engine trust if you’ve messed up but if you maintain trust, search engines can be very loyal.

Eric Lander: Trust will come through tried and true techniques. Quality, valuable content is still one of the most important factors. Beyond that, though, you are going to need authoritative and relevant inbound links in order to strengthen your trust in any particular vertical.

Dr. Michael Dorausch: We do really well on content creation and image related traffic. We constantly strive to see that our content is unique, made as granular as seen fit, and images are properly described, tagged, and suitable to the post. After a decade of creating content, I’ve learned that both forms of visitors — search engine bots and humans — appreciate and reward those efforts.

Ben Lloyd: I don’t really make a distinction between users and search engines. I like to think of search engines as a specific type of user and that’s about it. I think earning trust is combination of factors. I think first impressions count. Therefore, I’d start with professional design & usability — a huge part in trust. Content is obviously key, as well. Useful, substantive, and informative content and features or tools helps build another layer of trust. The next layer of credibility comes from the industry and marketplace you’re working in — are you getting recognition from your peers? In SEO parlance, that typically means links.

Chris “Silver” Smith: Search engine trust is developed over time. When a site delivers good content to users, those users don’t bail out rapidly looking for info elsewhere. A trustworthy site doesn’t have a history of delivering up deceptive content, malware, and stolen content. Trustworthiness is further enhanced in search engines’ eyes by citations from other authoritative, trustworthy sources — a trustable site will have more inlinks and will be mentioned more in news articles, blog posts, and individual’s email notes.

Social Media & Trust

boy and girl photoMack Collier: When dealing with social media, you have to have connections built on trust in order to be successful. Without it, you’ve got no chance. I think you earn trust online by being consistent, honest, and transparent in your motives and intentions. If you say one thing and act another, that will always come through to others, and it is SO easy to spread that to other people.

Lee Odden: Marketers engaging in a social context need to earn the trust of the audiences they intend on reaching and communicating with. Otherwise, things can turn in the other direction pretty quickly. On the social web, there seems to be no middle ground on trust. Either consumers trust or they don’t.

Cameron Olthuis: If you are not honest, you will be called out by the community. Social media users always tend to have a couple savvy ones in the group; if you’re dishonest they will find out and call you out on it. Earning a reputation for trust will increase word of mouth and business. Earning a negative reputation for trust will result in people choosing to do business with your competitors.

Jane Copland: Tell the truth! This sounds too simple, but it’s not. Everyone screws this up sometimes, but my personal experience is that nothing beats a real voice. This, I believe, is why companies should let their employees be themselves online (within reason, of course), and also speak with a personal voice when using social media to bring across a corporate message.

"We're living in a trust-based economy."Muhammad Saleem: We’re living in a trust-based economy. If you want to succeed, you can no longer just blast millions of people with your message and hope that 2% of them respond. On the social web you have to participate and not just listen to others but show them that you’re listening by acting on what they have to say.

Brent Csutoras: In almost all aspects of social media, you are meant to communicate more as a friend than as someone trying to market your goods or services. This is especially the case when talking about social communities such as Reddit, StumbleUpon, or Facebook. A large part of social media marketing is depending on your social network to help you out and participate in your campaigns. It is impossible to ask assistance or share something with an individual if there is no trust.

Neil Patel: Trust is important in social media marketing because if people don’t trust you (the submitter) or your website URL then your site won’t ever hit the homepage of any one of these sites. Once you become trusted, it makes it much easier to become popular on the web.

Jordan Kasteler: When it comes to social news sites, establishing trust will make or break the success of your content. “Content is king.” … No, not always. You can have great content that you submit to a site like Reddit, Digg, or Sphinn and watch it gain little to no votes because your account is not trusted by the community. It takes a lot of hard work and effort to be trusted by a community. You have to be a heavy contributor, you have to support others, comment, vote, and drive your numbers up. When someone’s analyzing you in a social community they’re going to be looking at your numbers to see if you are someone who is trusted by others.

Simon Heseltine: One great way to generate trust online is to contribute, be a member of communities that are of interest to your company, and respond to topics that may not be in your direct line of business. That way, should there ever be an issue with your company that you need to respond to, those people in those communities will be more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and allow you to explain your side of the story, because you’ll have built up that level of trust with them.

Local Search & Trust

Google Map markerDon Campbell: More and more new people are going to Google or Yahoo to find local goods and services instead of using the print yellow pages. When one of these users finds your website through the local search results you can build trust by having an effective website that provides all of the information they need to contact or find you, with a specific call to action like asking for a phone call or visit to your physical location. Proactively managing your online reviews is a very important way to build trust with new customers. Make sure you know where people are reviewing your business (e.g. Google Local, Yahoo Local, Yelp, etc.), monitor and respond to those reviews, and most importantly build a habit of asking your best customers to spend five minutes to give you a review online. And make it super easy for them to do this.

David Mihm: Make sure you are getting positive reviews on as many different portals as you can. If you’re not, respond to the negative ones in a way that users who come along and read them are willing to give you a second chance. Do great work and you earn trust from customers and clients, but you also need to make sure they’re talking about their experiences on the web. You can help form people’s impressions of you even before they come to your site. I actually see the engines moving more and more to a TrustRank metric than a PageRank metric as we go forward. I know that component is already part of Google’s and Yahoo’s current algorithms, but the whole “six degrees of separation” from a quality website like your city government page, etc., already seems to be having an increased impact on ranking in the 10-pack.

Mike Blumenthal: Trust in a Google Maps sense is algorithmic in nature. Its meaning has little to do with trust as traditionally defined in a customer merchant relationship. Google has the problem of having millions of business listings and needing to know with some confidence that the listing is trustworthy; i.e., accurately represents a business location. Unlike in web search, in local search it is the business listing itself that needs to be trusted, not the website.

The primary mechanism for Google to establish trust in the listing is having it claimed AND verified in the Local Business Center. This establishes the listing with the highest trust level and, in theory anyway, as inviolable.

The Benefits of Trust

paradise photoMichael Gray: Once you are trusted by the search engines, you are living in the land of milk and honey. Rankings and traffic flow more freely. Additionally, as you become more trusted, your website plays by a different set of rules; things like duplicate content don’t play as much of a role. As a publisher, the number one thing you need to focus on is getting those links and building trust if you want to rank in Google.

Todd Mintz: If your site isn’t trusted, even the best white-hat SEO efforts won’t lead to optimum results.

Donna Fontenot: The primary benefit of being trusted by search engines is that the trust often gives you a “pass” out of any unfortunate sticky situations you may have gotten yourself into. “Accidentally” linking to a bad neighborhood? Oops, oh well, you’re trusted, so you’ll probably not get whacked too hard, if at all.

Adam Audette: Rankings! And lots of targeted traffic. Being a trusted resource in the eyes of the search engines means you will be crawled deeper and more often, have higher rankings, and accumulate more traffic and more backlinks. Becoming trusted by search engines is what it’s all about.

Stoney deGeyter: Mo’ rankings! Building trust in ways that can be interpreted by the search engines gives you a greater opportunity for exposure, links, and rankings. And those things create more trust which, in turn, helps create more exposure, links, and rankings.

Susan Esparza & Virginia Nussey: Trusted sites receive authority in the link algorithm, as well as visibility benefits like Sitelinks. Aged domains are a sign of consistency, which is a signal for trust. Search engines want to direct users to the highest-quality sites available and to those sites that they know won’t hurt the user. If the search engine knows that a certain site consistently gives users a good experience, they will trust them to continue doing so and will send more traffic that way.

Rae Hoffman: Trusted sites rank better and, in my experience, often seem to have a different set of rules, so to speak. But the ultimate advantage is that obtaining true trust means you’ve obtained the trust of your users and your niche, which means you’re now building an online brand and not chasing the algorithm of the moment. If you can do this now, while the concept is still foreign to most and the mainstream thinks it’s “all about links,” you’ll be positioned well ahead of your competitors by the time it becomes obvious.


It’s all about trust.

(Photos courtesy of dickuhne, Pink Sherbet Photography, Burning Image, velorowdy, and seanmcgrath via Creative Commons)

Comments (41)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Dave says:

    Brilliant. This article must have taken ages to put together. But well worth it. Best point of all goes to Todd Mintz.

  2. There’s some great advice here, but it all begs the question of how an SEO can build trust with their clients. Maybe that belongs in a separate post, but I think it’s worth bringing up.

    Too many of us still try to impress people with our knowledge of the industry by using language our potential clients don’t understand.

    If you charge a regular monthly fee, you should make sure your clients know what and how much work you’re actually doing to justify that fee.

    Your reports to your clients should be about their goals for the site. A top ranking is just one of many steps toward an improved bottom line.

  3. Bryan Phelps says:

    Very awesome post. Trust is huge. I recommend everyone read The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey. It will change the way you think.

  4. Andy Beal says:

    Wow, great post! It’s going to take me a week to digest all the great advice.

  5. Wow, we try to beat this drum to our clients. I’ll certainly point our audience to this post. Thanks, Chris

  6. This article has caused me to look at our online marketing efforts in a whole new light. I strive to build trust with my customers at our physical locations but I NEVER thought trust an issue with our web presence.

  7. Dan Connolly says:

    Good stuff here! I had always thought Trust Rank was just mainly about the age of the site and backlinks from other trusted sites… seems there is much more to it than that!

  8. I think this article is the most useful one I have read in a long time. We all need to take a step back from our websites and rather than just focusing on design/usability/content/niches consider the one overarching reason for us putting information online – to benefit the reader.

    Make this the question you ask in everything you do. Will this increase the reader’s trust?

  9. Great points to all who participated, I concur.. With the signal to noise ratio’s off the charts online (with noise obviously winning) trust is the only things that differentiates quality from fluff. Like the flip of a switch for search engines and humans alike, one is rewarded while the other is ignored.

  10. B. says:

    Thanks for putting this together and going to the trouble of collecting all these valuable opinions. Enjoyed reading it and learned a lot.

  11. Emily says:

    Excellent article. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. kelly says:

    “Lisa Barone: By pointing customers to competitors when you can’t give them what they need.”

    Wisest advise I’ve heard the last 12 months!

    This loooong blog entry is really informative! Thank you!

  13. Matt McGee says:

    Thanks for all the great feedback, folks. Bob, I think the point you bring up is good fodder for a different post. If you don’t write about it, maybe I will. 🙂

  14. Matt, another great post! It also shows the amount of trust that you have gained as a person and a marketer to have this many credible people in the industry help you put this post together with their insights! Great work!

  15. LaRon Carter says:

    Matt I’m glad to have found your blog, not in Google Alert or Google Reader, a Blog Roll, Search or Digg (although all work well,) but from a credible and trusted network friend Maria Davis @websuccessdiva in a status link. I’m also grateful you decided to repurpose this article from one year ago. I’ve been studying the trust factor for years. In his new book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey says, “Trust is an organizations greatest asset for building relationships and ultimately a world-class company.” Your evangelized message helps us all to understand the need to push trust to the top of our value hierarchy from the inside out.

  16. Matt McGee says:

    LaRon/Joe/Vince – thanks for the kind words. Sorry to be slow in replying. Been busy organizing SMX West sessions for next month. LaRon – I like the way you drop in the mention of hearing about this article from a TRUSTED friend. It IS all about trust, indeed. 🙂

  17. Y. Steven says:

    Lots of advice from the pro are well worth accepted. Damn i like what Andy Beal said “The best way to earn trust online is to treat users the way you think they expect to be treated” I couldn’t agree more with this statement

    Thanks so much for your effort in putting all these on a single post

  18. Flip Elliot says:

    Website longevity is an significant factor. Sites that deliver quality content over 5 to 10 years rank well for many years, even if maintenance is minimal. Looking forward, the duration of the domain registration period also seems to be a factor, with longer domain registrations being favored. Finally, personal interaction with the user community on the site leads to favorable backlinks and referral traffic.

  19. What a terrific post Matt! You’ve been able to capture and condense the wisdom of many using a multidisciplinary approach to Internet Marketing that lays down the foundation for SEO success. Nicely done.

  20. Rich Bianco says:

    Hi, I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to put together this great posting. I LOVE the strategy of getting quotes from successful bloggers/webmasters — you effectively provided an amazingly powerful article while at the same time legitimately accomplishing some of the best SEO (on one page) than I’ve ever seen. Absolutely brilliant. I’m trying to build a useful internet directory for my home city (Orlando) and although it has only been 3 months I am really losing hope that I can succeed. You’ve given me the hope again. If you can find the time to make any recommendations I would be forever indebted to you. I’m hesitant to put the URL for fear of looking like a spammer but I’m sure you can find my site. I will definitely be back here.

  21. Brandon says:

    I love how trust rank has been implemented now a days. I use a sites rank quite a bit to determine if I should be linking to it or going for a link from that website. Good stuff guys!

  22. Cory Trusty says:

    Thank you for the helpful info. I’ve read it twice and am sharing with my Women’s Biz network.

  23. Cory Trusty says:

    P.S.. My last name really is Trusty… it’s not a spammy name. LOL. Thought of that after I posted.

  24. Jason Weaver says:

    Thanks for the great examples and idea about earning trust. I think if you ran every SEO idea by the question, “would this build trust?” (kinda like what would Jesus do?) then there would be no more bad SEO practices. Thanks again Matt.

  25. Phil Ryan says:

    So many top minds in this article I’m sad it took me so long to finally read it. Great advice and insights into how to establish trust in the eyes of the search engines and users. Thanks for putting this together for us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *