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Credible Content on a Credible Site

"Trust is the most valuable commodity in Cyberspace," says Evan I. Schwartz. And anyone who's writing or updating the content of Web pages is at least partly responsible for creating a Web site that people trust.

A credible page is a profitable page ... well, not always! But a page that's credible at least has the potential to be profitable. And the reverse is surely true: a page that does not inspire trust has no chance of becoming profitable.

The credibility of your Web site is a huge issue for Web users. Thousands of students are currently being trained to evaluate sites on this basis. Who has provided the information on this page? Can the information be trusted? Can the people behind it be trusted? Is it safe to send an e-mail to these unknown people? Will an order be secure? Without credibility, there's not going to be much action.

Credibility is not a problem for Toyota or Oxford University or U.S. Federal Government Agencies or Shell or Xerox. But for a small or new organization, it can be a major hurdle. Without trust, people are wisely reluctant even to e-mail you with a query.

When you come to think of it, why should anyone trust the information published on your Web site? We all know that:

- politicians break promises - business people cheat - people lie - systems break down - brats hack - and on the Web, we can't see what we're buying until after we've paid for it.

What inspires trust on the Web?

Being a wizard with words on the Web does not mean creating illusions or behaving like a new Houdini. Think rather of the good wizard Merlin.

Long term, to inspire trust you have to prove you are trustworthy. The following provide clues for the Web user, and when combined, tend to suggest that you are honest.

  • Plenty of worthwhile content
  • Attractive, user-friendly design
  • A secure order form
  • Good writing and perfect proofreading
  • The magic word -- "free"
  • Friendly persuasion
  • A real sense of your people and premises
  • A big strong money-back guarantee
  • Testimonials from real people, with addresses
  • Your organization's name and address on every page
  • A promise not to sell people's names and addresses
  • Links to other Web sites
  • "Last updated" last month
This article explains how to build all these factors into your Web site, and why they are all significant.


1. Plenty of worthwhile content

What makes an outstanding Web site? "Content is king." "Matter matters most." "Brilliant content." "Interesting, original content." That's what all the experts have been saying for years. Recent research confirms that high-quality content is far and away the most important factor in attracting people back to a Web site again and again.

Hollow sites, which are usually no more than online brochures, are widely ignored or despised. These are the empty shop-fronts that say virtually nothing except, "Hey, look at us! Gee whiz, we're on the Web!" Still, if that's the kind of Web site you have now, at least you've got a basis to build on.

Here's what to do. It's one of the best tips you'll ever get about creating a successful site: ADD CONTENT. Add plenty of high- quality, focused, non-commercial content. And update it often.

A page with lots of valuable content is a page worth reading.

A page worth reading is a page worth bookmarking. Have you checked your Bookmarks or Favorites lately? Most either do something marvelous (like Yahoo!) or are information-rich, with layers and layers of articles, news, games, tests, tips, tutorials and links. One information-rich Web site is worth a thousand empty ones.

Web surfers are hungry for something interesting, something useful, something original. They're information-hungry -- so make your site information-rich. Sure, your content might be games, graphics or music -- but original content usually consists of words.

Yes, but what content?

You can't put everything you know on your Web site. Think carefully about what people want to know, and what you can reasonably provide.

Primarily, determine what your clients or customers are most interested in. Then provide detailed, authoritative information about that topic.

Say you're an optometrist upgrading your Web site. You might decide to concentrate on two categories for content: common problems with vision, plus your catalog of frames.

For the first, you write or commission a monthly article about common problems with vision -- from the cross-eyed child to glaucoma to eye-fatigue in computer-users. The articles present information and advice, seeing things from the patient's point of view. They expressly avoid any reference to your optometrist's business. The articles don't try to sell glasses.

For the second, you provide a complete, searchable catalog of spectacle frames. You include photos and technical information. And maybe an interactive facility where people can see different frames on their own type of face.

Interactive content

Interactivity is a strength of the Web and people love it. People are interacting with your site just by clicking or subscribing to an e-zine. But think about how you can set up something interactive that is personal, informative and automatic. For example, a speed reading trainer offers a reading test online. Astrologers give you your monthly chart. An HR company offers a personality profile test online.


2. Attractive, user-friendly design

Design is hugely important in establishing a Web site's credibility. Your Web site is your showcase, and people judge your organization by its design.

Simplicity pays dividends: the more complex the technology, the more easily things can go wrong.

Whether simple or complex, your site must look professional and it must work brilliantly. This is important even for a small not-for-profit or academic site -- but especially for any commercial Web site.


3. A secure order form

This is essential if people are going to order through your Web site. You certainly need to be able to accept major credit cards.


4. Good writing and perfect proofreading

Just thought I'd mention it ...


5. The magic word -- "FREE"

The Internet is called the gift economy. You win popularity contests by giving away something worthwhile.

Web sites give away products, services, games and shareware. One of the most popular giveaways is information, and the more the better. The copywriter is often in charge of producing free information. Of course, don't just drop pamphlets and articles into your site before editing them expressly for the Web. These articles tell you how.

Providing free information boosts your credibility. I guess people assume that if you're giving away high quality, accurate information, you must have heaps more information up your sleeve.


6. Friendly persuasion

Is your Web site supposed to be persuasive? If so, remember that Web users are generally suspicious of hype. Most have no desire to read your boasting that your product is "the best", "the cheapest" or "the ultimate". When you exaggerate, your credibility collapses.

In general, people on the Web are persuaded by two things:

- the clear benefits to themselves - the facts

They're not interested, usually, in the things that fascinate you -- like the technical features of your queen-size beds. They want to know how these new beds will benefit them.

So you don't talk about double-helix hypertensile steel springs. Instead, you tell people they won't roll into the middle of the bed, their bad back will be supported, and they'll be cooler on hot nights and warmer in cold weather.

When you're trying to persuade Web users to buy something or even subscribe to a free newsletter, put yourself in their shoes. How will your product or newsletter or services benefit them? Explain all the benefits from their point of view, and you have a good chance of successfully persuading people. (Some highly- persuasive Web pages are unusually long -- like ours!)

Even if your site is a charity, you can show people what their contribution will achieve in concrete terms. World Vision advertising is a classic example of this.


7. A real sense of your people and premises

I believe it is valuable for a small organization to provide photos of its staff, and sometimes its premises, on the Web site.

Of course photographs don't automatically guarantee that you're a genuine bunch of experts doing genuine work. But photographs can humanize your Web site, and help to overcome the anonymity of the Web. Photos can help people to trust you.

It's understandable that people should want to "see" you. We all make business judgments partly on the strength of whether we like the look of a person. So do include photos of your people to increase your credibility.

List your staff's accomplishments and qualifications. List your memberships in applicable professional organizations, Chamber of Commerce, ISO9001 accreditation, etc.

Quote facts about your organization. Size does matter on the Web. Even if you are a small business, you can still cite big numbers. Do 12,000 people subscribe to your e-zine? That's big! Have you got 100% satisfied customers? That's big. Say so.


8. A big strong money-back guarantee

A guarantee for what you're selling is essential, and the stronger the better. People need to know they can get their money back if something goes wrong. This is extremely important when they're buying something on the Web. They don't know you. You may live in a different country, with different consumer laws. They can't see their purchase until after they've paid for it. So people naturally want a guarantee before they hand over credit card details. Without a strong guarantee you will surely lose sales.


9. Testimonials from satisfied customers, with addresses

Genuine testimonials from happy clients are a great way to boost confidence in your Web site. Each testimonial should emphasize a different strength of your business.

Make sure you get permission to publish these letters as testimonials, along with the writers' names and addresses. Without a genuine name and address, a testimonial could be phony and everyone knows it.

Start actively collecting specific testimonials from top customers, using their own words, and even showing their photo plus full name and address.


10. Your identity on every page

Ever found yourself at a great site with no idea who produced it? That's an unthinkable blow to credibility. Make sure the name of your organization is on every page. A link is not enough. Put it in words: a graphic will be invisible to some users.

Where are you coming from? People want to know where your organization is based. So put your old-fashioned address on every page also. This may seem odd when the Web is by definition global: but people have a human need to know this simple fact.


11. A promise not to sell the customer's name and address

If you invite people to e-mail you, guarantee that their name and address will go no further. This inspires confidence in your integrity.


12. Links to other Web sites

Outbound hypertext links to other Web sites also raise your credibility. These links show you have done your research. They also show you are confident of your own Web site's value in comparison to others.


13. "Last updated" last month

For maximum credibility, refresh your pages frequently. Your site inspires the most confidence if the "last updated" time was within the last month.

Of course you must update certain things immediately or daily -- for example, new prices, catalog changes, weather forecasts and daily news. This requires a fail-safe communication system between you and the webmaster. Otherwise there can be dire consequences -- including wrecked yachts and some very unhappy customers.

However, updating content daily is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for most organizations. And if the content drops in quality as a result of the pressure, daily updating can backfire.

A typical winning Web site publishes a new article (or recipe or tip or whatever) every month. Archives of old articles become a rich asset.

Standard information can be a good draw also, even if it's rarely expanded or changed. Encyclopedias aren't updated every month. News breaks about Mary Queen of Scots don't happen every day. Technical details about your unique system of roofing or manufacture of base isolators will not change overnight. Just make sure this type of information is high quality.



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