Google released its Panda update in February 2011 and shortly after, a questionnaire of 23 Quality Ranking Factors designed to keep webmasters focused on creating relevant, high-quality websites. Since then, there has been a tremendous amount of emphasis put on building trust online. Though most savvy business owners are skilled trust-builders within their business practices, many aren’t sure how trust translates to their company website.
Analyzing Website Trust
A webpage’s trustworthiness is directly related to the perceived value it offers to its users.
Trust, being an intangible feeling, cannot be easily measured. (If only we had a trust plugin we could add to our webpages.) In the past, it was more important for a website to be optimized for the search engine spiders (e.g. Google Bots) than to be optimized for visitor satisfaction. The belief was that search engines first had to find your site and rank it well in the SERPs (search engine results pages) before it could ever be appreciated by a living, breathing human. The user experience was secondary. This resulted in an excess of sites with copy that was unnatural to read, lacked in sufficient content, and was overstuffed with keywords. Many were designed simply to make a buck, littered with advertisements or created simply to redirect a visitor to a sales page. As black-hat SEO practices became mainstream, legitimate businesses with useful websites had greater difficulty competing with well optimized sites of lesser value. Small businesses suffered especially.
Trust: The Future of Search
Google – the world’s most used search engine, recognized the need for a value-based metric and with the release of the Panda update, began lowering the rank of sites deemed untrustworthy. For years, Google has all but demanded that web developers avoid implementing website features that may negatively impact their rank. In the past, however, these features were tangible (e.g. don’t cloak keywords, keyword stuffing, doorway pages, etc.) Now, businesses, along with their web developers, are expected to foster a sense of trust and avoid tactics that may negatively impact the user experience.
In 2011, an analysis of search engine ranking factors was released based on the opinions of over 100 search marketing experts. When asked about the future of search marketing, these experts overwhelmingly agreed that the perceived value of a webpage would have the greatest increase of ranking importance over 10 other historically significant ranking factors. In other words, SEO experts believe that Google will be putting a huge emphasis on website trust over the coming months.
10 Website Features that Break Trust
1. Lack of information about the publisher or business. Site visitors want to know the people behind the website. Leaving the “About” page off your site can be a critical mistake.
2. Avoid single page websites with all the content on one page. Sites should have an overarching theme and individual pages should be structured by topic. Content shouldn’t be disorganized or jumbled together. Site content should be neatly organized and well thought out. Sites that divide content into too many pages may also be problematic. Strive for a balance that makes sense.
3. When writing articles, avoid splitting single articles into multiple pages. For some reason, many news sites love to do this. Visitors prefer to scroll rather than click a “next page” button. Search engine spiders can better categorize your articles if each one spans only one page.
4. Avoid out-of-date content. Visitors prefer sites that are regularly updated with fresh, relevant content and so do the search engines. Spam sites will often post articles without a publication date. Provide publication dates for any articles you post. Do not display outdated copyright dates.
5. Avoid content that lacks depth. Informational pages should be written as a resource to site visitors. Pages that are created simply to fill space may be considered too light in content and may be penalized. Avoid micro-sites (sites with less than 5 pages total). Most informational pages (or articles) should be at least 800 words in length. Pages with little to offer won’t fool readers either. Your site is likely to rank higher if you are offering a real value to your visitors.
6. Do not publish poorly written material. Search engines are now taking into account proper language usage and grammar.
7. Do not overuse advertisements. Even though Google provides much of the source material for advertisements, web searchers have expressed that ads diminish trust. Google has heard this and is taking into account the amount of space devoted to ads on a webpage. Do not fill more than 50% of the page with ads. When possible, avoid ads above the fold. Remember that your email “opt-in form” counts as an ad. To understand how Google views your website, set your monitor to 1024 x 768. What you see before you touch your scroll bar is “above the fold.”
8. Avoid amateur or unprofessional looking sites. While it is unlikely Google Bots can appreciate the aesthetics of a page it is probably safe to say they can read in the code whether or not a site is of professional quality. Avoid outdated design, disorderly navigation menus, and sloppy organization. Limit the use of stock photography and avoid clip art entirely.
9. Avoid the sales pitch. Of course, most businesses are pitching their product or service but too much “sales hype” can quickly diminish trust. Beware of copy like this: “Lose 10 pounds in 10 days with the #1 weight loss pill on the market. Take one pill a day and you’ll lose weight.” If you are providing testimonials about a product, be sure you are familiar with FTC disclosures and have the proper disclaimers in place. Google is already checking for this for sites that purchase Adwords and are expected to eventually when ranking in the organic results as well.
10. Avoid linking to untrustworthy sites. Google looks at the sites you are linking to. If those sites have been deemed untrustworthy, their bad reputation can reflect poorly on you. You may be judged by the company you keep.
Check back soon for our list of website features that build trust.