Today more than ever before, trust is an issue online. Users are rightfully concerned about whether the information they’re reading is accurate, if their personal information is secure, or how their browsing habits are observed and used. But what makes a website trustworthy? How do users decide which websites are accurate, secure, and ethical? And does this work?
5 Factors that Make or Break Trust Online
1. The URL
Your web address—your URL—is one of the first and most obvious indicators that makes a website trustworthy in users’ minds. A website’s URL explains, in part, where information comes from or what organization the website is associated with. For example, from their URL alone we know that the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab (https://credibility.stanford.edu/) is associated with Stanford University (https://www.stanford.edu/).
Each person’s assessment of a URL happens quickly; they decide whether to click on a link or trust a site in an instant. So what makes some URLs and therefore some websites more trustworthy?
- Recognition: If a user has heard of or used the URL before, they are more likely to trust it. Though this can be helpful, as popular websites often have some benefits over others, this can be a problem; what is popular is not always safe or trustworthy.
- Simplicity: URLs with many layers are more easily forgotten and they are harder for users to interpret or understand. What is misunderstood is often mistrusted.
- Authority: Some URLs which are commonly associated with governments, universities or other high-authority institutions are more easily trusted (.gov or .edu, for example). Since these organizations are usually concerned with public education and safety, this is generally a good practice, though it should not be the only factor.
- Security: To be secure, a website should have at least an SSL certificate. This protects users with a layer of encryption and puts the “s” in Https. As of 2018, Google flagged any sites without an SSL certificate with a red “Not Secure” icon by their URL.
2. Social Proof: Testimonials and Reviews
We are all innately social creatures, and we instinctively watch what those around us are doing to see what the best course of action is. This is the effect of social proof; we trust what others trust. This is also part of what makes a website trustworthy.
Social proof can occur in many ways. As previously mentioned, when more people use and are familiar with a particular web address, that site becomes more trustworthy. However, a site doesn’t have to be a household name like Google or Amazon to benefit from social proof. Testimonials, reviews and case studies are all types of social proof. When new users see that the site has worked for others, they are more likely to trust it.
For this to be successful, the testimonials, reviews or other signs of approval must be authentic and reliable. Users have known long before the internet that endorsements aren’t always real and reviews can easily be made-up. Video testimonials are one of the best ways to showcase authentic reviews, simply because videos are much harder to fake or steal than text or pictures alone.
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3. Social Approval: Star Ratings and Endorsements
Even sites without their own user testimonials can leverage the effects of social proof. Showcasing a star rating gives new site visitors an indication of quality, even if they have never heard of the site before. Many sites use a widget or app to carry over star ratings from Amazon, Yelp, or other sites in their niche, or they may simply display an image and a link to the page. Magazines, blogs, books, movies and other media showcase star ratings from known publications or reviewers. Many products use endorsements from celebrities or experts in their field. Businesses will showcase their high-profile clients on a case studies page or on their homepage.
This makes a website more trustworthy by borrowing authority and familiarity from other websites, people, or brands. Though users may not be familiar with a particular website, seeing high reviews from someone or something they do know gives them some security.
4. Current, Readable Design
Sites that are difficult to follow, read, understand or are simply unappealing will not inspire trust. Though a site’s outward appearance shouldn’t necessarily reflect how reliable, ethical, or accurate it is, this connection definitely occurs in visitors’ minds. This is due to several factors;
- Outdated site designs make users think the information isn’t current and therefore may be inaccurate or unreliable.
- Sites with unclear text, capital letters, errors or other problems indicate spam and other online hazards.
- Bad design shows negligence and users wonder if the site owners is also negligent about security, customer service, or information accuracy.
It is ideal to have a site designed especially for you by a professional. If this isn’t possible, use a clean, legible format from a template. Update your site information on a regular schedule and display the date when it was edited.
To make a website trustworthy, users should be able to follow the path of information and verify it. There should be no secrets about where information comes from, who posted it, or why it’s there. Maintaining absolute transparency is one of the best ways to make a website trustworthy. Transparency means making the following information known or easy to access. If it isn’t, users can and should wonder what you’re hiding and why.
- The people or company behind the website
- Content authors
- How the website or organization is funded
- The website’s or organization’s mission or goals
- Contact information
- How a product or service works
Does your website deserve visitors’ and consumers’ trust, but it isn’t seen as trustworthy? Some of these aspects, like parts of your URL, you cannot completely control, but there are changes that you can make to make your website more trustworthy. Try making these changes to make your site more secure, recognizable, authoritative and transparent. Remember, gaining trust doesn’t happen overnight, but visitors will recognize businesses and individuals that operate with ethics and care.