Why has credibility become such a hot button for web site owners? In this case, the Web's best features are also its own worst enemy. The Web is an inexpensive, easy place to publish your content - and it levels the playing field between large and small enterprises. While this is good news for small businesses that don't have large marketing budgets, it's also good news for a sleazy, marginal business that wants your money. Any unqualified hack can acquire a stellar Web presence for just a few thousand dollars.
The smaller or less well-known your company, the more important it is to present a credible, trustworthy face. You don't have the benefit of a multimillion-dollar ad campaign or an already-established presence in the marketplace. If you want people to believe what they see on your site, you've got to give them good reasons - in fact, ten of them.
Summed up below in bold type are ten Guidelines for Web Credibility, which grew out of a project by the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. The guidelines are based on three years of research with more than 4,500 people, and the advice has proven to be sound. My comments follow.
1. Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site. Remember what they told you when you learned to write reports in middle school. Credit your sources. Link to them when you can. Show that you didn't "MSU," as we used to say in the large computer company where I once worked (the polite definition is "Make Stuff Up.")
2. Show that there's a real organization behind your site. Posting a physical address on your contact page goes a long way. So do photos of the management team. (It took me a long time to accept this for my own site, but I found that I wanted to see photos of people on other sites, so I caved in.)
3. Highlight the expertise in your organization and in the content and services you provide. Especially if you offer a service, such as consulting, you need to show customers that you are qualified and equipped to handle their needs. Your credentials and affiliations with respected organizations will show that you're solid and trustworthy. Show where you've been and what you've done.
4. Show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site. Many sites have a "Management Team" page in their "About Us" section. A local nonprofit land preservation organization has posted photos from a staff party on their web site. In the photos they're dressed to represent various decades - one male staffer wears a long blond wig and miniskirt. Now these are people you want to have fun with! Along with appropriate photos of people in canoes and on hiking trails, the page effectively conveys the friendly spirit of the organization. (And how can you not trust an organization that posts photos of employees in drag?)
5. Make it easy to contact you.Your phone, email address, and physical address should be easy to find. I'd like to add that you should reply promptly to any customer inquiries you receive. I left a Web-hosting provider that took days to answer support emails and never, ever answered the phone or returned calls (despite a lovely female voice on the voicemail system that assured me how much they cared). I'm convinced that a team of high school kids manage that company in between trips to the mall.
6. Design your site so it looks professional (or is appropriate for your purpose). If you wouldn't give a customer a photocopied, homemade brochure, don't show them an unprofessional web site. Put yourself in the hands of a professional Web designer who understands how to project the right image for business clients. Tie the look and feel into your printed materials to reinforce the consistency and impact of your brand.
7. Make your site easy to use - and useful. Easy-to-use sites allow readers to find the content (the useful content) they are seeking. Imagine traveling to a new city and renting a car on a dark, rainy night. You slide in behind the wheel and try to put the key in the ignition. But the ignition is not where it usually is; it's to the left of the steering wheel. Then you look for the windshield wipers, but their controls are on the ceiling. It takes you 15 minutes to get going. That's what it can be like trying to use a site that doesn't follow basic guidelines for usability. Don't be lured into showcasing your great Web design talents, only to create a beautiful site that's impossible to navigate.
Useful sites put the needs of the customer first. They anticipate what information the customer will be looking for and post appropriate content. How useful is a site whose home page is a lengthy animated flash image that shoves the company's logo and mission statement in your face? Not very. (But that "skip intro" link is VERY useful.)
8. Update your site's content often (at least show it's been reviewed recently). If that seminar or trade show has passed, remove it from your "Upcoming Events."
9. Use restraint with any promotional content (e.g., ads, offers). If you're not selling Ginsu® knives, don't act like you are. In-your-face promos are annoying and distract from your content. Make it too obvious that you want to sell something, and you'll put people on the defensive. Avoid pop-ups. I'm sure I'm not the only one who deletes them using peripheral vision, so I never have to really look at them.
10. Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem. Typos and broken links show you're not in control. If you're window-shopping in a new neighborhood, are you going to step into a store if the windows are broken and the door is hanging off the hinges?
Andrea Harris, publisher of The Minerva Minute and owner of Minerva Solutions, Inc. helps businesses achieve professional, effective online and printed marketing communications. Contact Andrea at her web site http://www.minerva-inc.com.