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Labels slowly build trust in the Web

By Noel C. PaulStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2002

When debuted on the Internet in 1997, the company faced a significant hurdle: convincing prospective customers that it was not a scam.

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Skeptical consumers consistently tested the company's reliability.

"We had people call on the telephone to make sure we were a reliable business," says Michael Jones, the firm's chief executive officer. "Some would investigate us with questions over e-mail."

A year later, JustStrings, which sells 8,000 varieties of strings for musical instruments, found an immediate solution to its credibility concern: The website began displaying a reliability seal from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) OnLine.

Since then, the company has consistently received unsolicited e-mails from first-time customers praising the seal. "Not knowing anything else about the business, the seal gives them a comfort level," says Mr. Jones.

Americans are turning to the Internet to make more of their purchases. More than 85 percent of US adults with Internet access have bought a product online, according to polling firm A.C. Nielsen.

But, broadly speaking, consumer trust in the Internet remains low.

A recent survey by Consumers Union found that only 29 percent of Americans trust Internet sites that sell products. The measure falls well below the public's level of trust for the federal government, small businesses, and large corporations. (The survey took place immediately after Enron's collapse.)

The BBB's reliability program, experts say, is one of the most prominent efforts yet to bring a new level of standardization to the Internet.

Nearly 11,000 sites display its seal, up from just 700 in 1997. Interest in obtaining the seal soared in the late 1990s as the dotcom implosion sent sites scrambling to convince consumers of their survivability.

It is among several programs run by consumer groups that audit sites' customer-service policies and award seals of approval to those that adhere to the best standards of customer service. Other groups assign performance ratings based on customer feedback.

As a whole, they represent Internet advocates' most visible attempt to make the Web a more reliable place for consumers to make purchases after half a decade of Internet failures and dissatisfied consumers.

"We had a Darwinian sweep of economic reality go through the Web," says Beau Brendler, director of Consumer WebWatch for Consumers Union. "Websites are learning to pay more attention to issues of credibility and reliability."

The first Internet sites to sell products online created patterns of customer service – generally lax – that are just now being reversed.

These sites were often designed by computer programmers rather than marketing executives, experts say. The designers frequently attempted to draw customers with technological bells and whistles while excluding the kind of practical information – return policies, for example – that's generally easy to find in a bricks-and-mortar retail setting.