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Crank Up Your Customers' Confidence Use these 3 tips to show that your website--and your business--are trustworthy.

By Johnathon Williams

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For small businesses that sell online, the importance of protecting customer data is a given. Unfortunately, the best security and privacy practices in the world are useless unless you first secure the customer's trust--no easy task in today's world. Increasing rates of identity theft and other types of online fraud have left many consumers gun shy when it comes time to pull the trigger on an online shopping cart, especially when a site lacks the reputation of industry giants such as Amazon. Here, several industry professionals explain how to present your small business site as safe and reputable.

1. Reassure visitors with third-party verifications
One of the first hurdles small businesses face online is obscurity; new customers are unlikely to have any previous knowledge of them, good or bad. That's where trust marks come in, says Fran Maier, CEO of TRUSTe.

Generally speaking, trust marks are linked graphics certifying that a site's security or privacy practices have been independently verified. Such verifications can go a long way toward reassuring potential customers that an unfamiliar business is legitimate, Maier says.

"They want some confidence that they're not going to be ripped off ... that they're not going to be subject to some sort of mishap with their data," she says.

TRUSTe's Privacy Service for small businesses helps e-commerce sites develop a custom privacy policy that spells out how the business safeguards customer information. Participating businesses are audited each year to ensure compliance with the policy, which earns them the right to display TRUSTe's privacy seal on their site. The service starts at $49 per month.

According to Maier, businesses see an average sales increase of 7 to 12 percent after enrolling in the program. Not all businesses pass the audit; Meyer estimates that one in five are expelled. Any visitor who feels that a participating business has violated its privacy policy can request that TRUSTe investigate and resolve the dispute.

"The TRUSTe mark means that a company can't share your information ... that if something goes wrong you can complain to us," she says.

Among online shoppers, the fear of something going wrong is widespread and well-founded, according to a number of surveys and studies. A study released in February by Javelin Strategy & Research found a 22 percent increase in identity theft from 2007 to 2008. A second Javelin study released in March found that online retailers missed $21 billion in sales due to online shopping fears, security among them. And a recent survey by Sherpa Marketing found that 60 percent of online shopping carts are abandoned before completing a purchase, often because of worries over identity theft.

2. Create an attractive, original visual impression (in less than a second)
Lea Alcantara, owner of LeaLea Design, says that trust marks help in part because they're an immediate visual cue, an important quality given how quickly most visitors scan web pages. But before visitors notice a trust mark, they make a snap judgement about a site's overall design and appearance--within 50 milliseconds, according to a 2006 study published in the journal Behavior and Information Technology. In order to appear legitimate and trustworthy, Alcantara says, a site needs to create a first impression that's both professional and original.

Professional means that the design meets certain standards in its typography, layout and style. When visitors see a site that skimps on these standards, it's a short leap to assume the business might skimp on other things as well--customer privacy, for instance.

"You can have the most legitimate business and the most secure business but if it looks like you didn't spend enough money to design your site then it doesn't look like you spent enough to be secure," she says.

The second half of that first impression--originality--is a particular problem for business owners who request designs that too closely resemble their competitors. These risk being confused with phishing scams--fraudulent sites or e-mails that mimic legitimate businesses in an attempt to steal financial information.

If you try to copy another site too much ... then people are going to start to wonder whether you're legitimate or not," she says.

Another common problem is the overuse of inexpensive stock photography. Popular stock photos appear on hundreds of sites thoughout the web, and their presence on an unfamiliar site can make a business feel less than authentic.

For businesses that can't yet afford to purchase a professional design, plenty of sites offer free, attractive templates that can be modified for far less than it costs to create an original design. Alcantara doesn't recommend this as a permanent solution, but it's better than trying to design a site from scratch without professional assistance.

3. Speak to visitors in an appropriate, empathetic voice (and check your spelling)
"Content is King" is one of the web's most familiar and long-standing edicts. Unfortunately, the most fundamental kind of content is often the most ignored: the copy.

Carolyn Wood, founder and lead copywriter of Pixelingo, says that badly written copy can give visitors a bad impression of a site almost as quickly as bad design. Web readers expect to be able to scan text quickly, which generally rules out long paragraphs or unfamiliar terms.

"There's a tendency in businesses to use jargon, but real people don't want to read jargon. They want you to speak to them conversationally, with empathy and with liveliness," she says.

Good copy creates an original voice for the business, Wood says, a voice that's appropriate for the specific audience that the business wants to reach.

One of the most basic benefits of professional copy is correct usage, Wood says, because grammar and spelling errors are a tell-tale sign of phishing scams. Attention to detail in the writing is one of the easiest ways to distinguish a legitimate business from those poor deposed Nigerian princes who need help getting their millions into a foreign bank.

Rather than any single element, Wood says, it's the whole of a user's experience that determines whether a visitor trusts a site.

"All of these things, especially when they're making purchases, are telling them whether they should continue or not and type in that Visa number," she says.

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