Businesses must think beyond Google bots to build a trusted online brand
Being trustworthy has always been of critical importance to brands. After all, if people don’t trust you why would they do business with you? But exactly what is meant by “brand trust” has been complicated by the digital revolution.
Building trust online used to mean one thing – getting Google to like you. All it took was a little keyword-heavy content and a few inbound links acting as endorsements from other websites. Google would then plonk you on the first page of its search results and potential customers would come pouring through the digital door in droves. But it’s not so easy now.
For one thing Google has upped its game. Its latest search results ranking algorithm, Google Panda, puts an increased emphasis on the importance of content quality. On top of that, the proliferation of social media sites means there are now many more touch points between brands and consumers where trust can be built or lost.
Add targeted advertising and rising concerns over data privacy, and building trust online is a minefield requiring careful navigation.
1. Trust rankings
Despite increased complexity in the digital terrain, your SEO activities still have a role to play in how trustworthy your brand is judged to be.
“Fundamentally, if a website ranks well, customers will see it as trustworthy,” says Search Laboratory chief executive Ian Harris.
Some SEO tactics will also directly influence consumers. “Links to your website from credible sources will endorse the quality of your site in the eyes of both Google and your customers,” says Harris.
Updated search engine algorithms placing greater value on content quality mean strategies for gaining the trust of both consumers and the Google bots are now more closely aligned than ever, Harris says.
“Always create genuinely useful, interesting content, carefully crafted with your target audience in mind. After all, would you trust a site that is littered with spam links and nonsensical content?” he says. “By considering the user, rather than the search engine, your content will naturally appeal to both.”
But Google trusts no one enough to reveal the intricate functioning of its algorithm. As a result, SEO strategies rely on trial and error to a degree, and strive to live up to vague notions of “quality”.
The prerequisite for high quality content doesn’t only apply to your website, but to any presence your brand has online – including advertising.
2. Ad data
“All poorly crafted advertising runs the risk of damaging consumer trust, and online advertising is no different,” says Spafax content marketing president Raymond Girard.
With the rise of behavioural targeting and a greater emphasis on budget saving segmentation, data is of increasing importance to the success of online advertising. “Businesses are becoming more reliant on data, but at the same time consumers are becoming more concerned about what is happening to their personal information and are more protective of it,” says TRUSTe vice‑president of marketing Dave Deasy.
Deasy says that if consumers don’t trust brands with their data, businesses and their marketers will start having significant problems. “People will stop completing transactions, registration forms and sign-up lists, they will stop downloading apps – so there are very real consequences if you lose that trust,” he says. A study by TRUSTe found that 29 per cent of respondents had stopped doing business with a company because of privacy concerns.
But how you treat customer data isn’t the be all and end all – how you interpret the data can also significantly affect brand reputation and trust. “Making wrong assumptions from data can be as inappropriate as management turning up to an angry trade union meeting wearing fancy dress,” says LoopMe chief executive Stephen Upstone. “A LoopMe board adviser recently complained on Twitter that renewing his car insurance had been painful and too expensive,” he says. “After the event he was then served ads to buy car insurance, exacerbating his frustration, which he of course tweeted about.”
3. Viral risk
The knowledge that any questionable online behaviour can be shared with millions in an instant is something brands have had to learn to live with. “Since the advent of the social web, poorly executed online advertising can actually do considerably more harm to a brand than it would on traditional platforms,” says Girard.
He adds that brands often fall into the trap of thinking that the immediacy of the web means gaffes can be pulled, adjusted or purged and disappear forever. “But now there are armies of customers, smartphones in hand, waiting to pounce on any misstep,” he says. “The very things that make online advertising so effective, like its shareability, can be turned on a brand in a nanosecond.”
Girard illustrates this with the example of fashion brand Kenneth Cole using Twitter to “newsjack” the Arab Spring uprisings, tweeting that the uproar in Cairo was a result of people hearing the brand’s new spring collection was available online.
“In one fell swoop a reputation built on socially aware advertising with a humanitarian bent was reduced to ashes,” says Girard. “The tweet was immediately pulled, but it is still out there further whittling away at the brand.”
A growing function of social media for many brands is customer service, rather than solely broadcasting. This means dissatisfied customers venting their frustration and anger in public – an obvious risk to brand reputation.
4. Customer complaints
Old-fashioned customer service through a call centre is private, and tales of a bad experience are unlikely to spread much further than the involved party’s immediate social circle. On social media the interaction is visible to millions.
So do complaints on social media damage trust in your brand? Sitel’s Andrea Bowers, who acts as webcare and social media community manager for Philips electronics, says that of course they can damage the brand, but if you are seen to be helpful you can turn it into something positive. “When consumers see you replying individually to complaints, we find that people then come through saying ‘I see you helped this person, can you help me too?’” she says.
We Are Social group account director Nicole Ghobrial agrees. “Negative comments can pose a risk to brand trust, but if you have a great customer service response plan the benefits probably outweigh the risks,” she says. “If, as a consumer, you go to a Facebook page and see complaints, but you see them being resolved quickly and efficiently, you can feel safe that if you purchase something through that brand and there is an issue it will be sorted out quickly.”
5. Peer reviews
Social media isn’t the only space online where your business can receive bad press – many consumers are now turning to customer reviews for honest opinions on brands. “Consumers value reviews because they trust the unedited opinions of their peers far more than official information sources such as advertising or sales assistants,” says Reevoo founder Richard Anson. Again, negative comments can, surprisingly, be beneficial. Reevoo research shows bad reviews actually reduce site abandonment, with time on a site leaping from just over three minutes to 18 minutes.
The research revealed that consumers trust reviews more when they see both positive and negative comments. “We all know that no product or service is completely perfect – but consumers do want to know what the few negatives are so that they can weigh them up against all the good points and make a fully informed decision,” says Anson.
The presence of negative reviews should not worry marketers, it is the ratio of good to bad that is crucial. In fact, an absence of negative reviews can lead consumers to distrust a brand. “Shoppers are suspicious when reviews don’t include any complaints,” says Anson. “Some people even suspect censorship or faked reviews when they all look like they have been hand-crafted by the marketing team.”