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In a way, the Internet may be compared to the Wild Wild West. (Where do you think the acronym 'WWW' came from?) There is no real central authority that is in charge and many scam artists take full advantage of this. Especially as a small business owner with no large company name behind yours, building credibility in the prospect’s mind becomes crucial.

Here are seven ways to build your online credibility.

1. You may find it beneficial to place your picture (even a smugshot) on your website.

Brick and mortar stores have the advantage since the clerk has a direct face-to-face conversation with the customer. It is therefore easier to ‘connect’ and form a relationship.

I recently read an interesting thread on a marketing forum message board with several people giving their opinions on the pros and cons of placing your picture on your site. Most of the fears expressed were that people might be turned off by the owner’s ethnicity. Even though this is a real fear I think that the best reaction I read on this point came from an Italian-American small business owner. She said that she would not want to do business with someone who was prejudiced against her anyway – I thought to myself – “Problem solved!”

Your photo helps your visitor to reach across the great chasm of the Internet and touch your customer -– right from their monitors. Why do you think cellular phone customers are trading in their ‘old phones’ for the new ‘talk-to-me-and-see-me-at-the-same-time’ models?

2. Provide an audio message in your own voice.

This is closely tied to the former tip. It all has to do with feeling connected and human. We are not computers – we just use them. We have emotions and use them to communicate. There is nothing that can communicate emotions like the human voice.

I can still fondly remember those days before my family could afford a television. As children we often listened to those radio dramas. You were there in the center of the action. ‘The Loooooonee RRRRanger!” the gallop of the horses, the crackle of gunfire … trust me, you were there. You smelled the gunpowder and rode those horses!

What can you use your voice to do? At least it can say, “There is a REAL person behind this website”. In this our automated age REAL counts.

3. Place your PHYSICAL address and contact information on every page.

Here again you are being transparent and in the open about your identity and how you may be contacted. You have nothing to hide, and you do not intend to take their money and close down your website the next day.

Your address also adds a sense of structure to the very fluid environment of the Internet. It is much like the sign on a brick and mortar store – this is where I’m located. That is why just a post office box number would not suffice.

Can you be reached by fax, landline phone, email, and mobile phone? This information adds to your credibility, not to mention your perceived availability.

4. Do not use a free email or hosting service as your main site.

Tied closely to credibility are the perceptions that you create of your business. Some say that in business image is everything. That may be taking it a little too far but you are NOT who you think you are but what the customer perceives you to be!

If you use a free email service such as hotmail.com what does this say about you? You are so successful but you cannot even afford a paid email service? Most spammers use these free email accounts anyway – that’s another count against you. It may be best to use the account associated with your paid website’s domain. I think that almost all web hosting services provide POP email accounts.

5. Have an ‘About’ page.

When a surfer appears at your site for the first time it is like going on a blind date. The visitor may have heard a little about you and know where to find you but she is practically just window-shopping. The ‘About’ page gives her a good chance to get a quick background check on you. She can then know if you are the one she really wants to build a relationship with.

Information you should place on this page includes:
- a personal and professional biography,
- maybe a photograph of yourself,
- name, address and telephone number,
- your company objectives,
- a comprehensive description of you and your company.

Just knowing this ‘outline’ of who you are places the visitor at ease and most of the nervous jitter hopefully disappears. Why? She sees you are not afraid to be checked out.

6. Include a ‘Privacy Statement’.

Internet users are becoming more and more sensitive to how their personal information is being used. This makes it almost imperative for you to provide a page with your privacy policy.

General concerns that would have to be addressed are:
*How you use the information that is collected.
*Is the information shared with a third party?
*Let them know how they can opt out of any mailing list they sign up for.
*Why you track their IP address.

For a more detailed discussion on website privacy you may check: http://www.truste.org/

7. Use your customers’ unsolicited testimonials and product reviews.

What you say about your product or service is not really taken seriously. I mean what are you expected to say anyway? It’s your product ... duh. What carry the greater weight are the opinions of other experts in your field. But what carries the greatest weight is what the customers themselves say.

This means that you can get instant credibility if you present the unsolicited testimonials of your satisfied customers. These testimonials should be accompanied with the email address or website and full name of the customer. The less information you give about the customer who is providing the testimonial the less believable it is. I have had visitors who actually contacted these customers to confirm that the testimonials were real.

So pour on the testimonials – too much is not enough.

There you had it. Use all these strategies to help build your credibility online and see more customers willing to open their wallets and their hearts.

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