“Everyone talks about the weather,” Mark Twain famously wrote. “But no one does anything about it.”
So it is with trust these days. There is lots of gnashing of teeth among PR and marketing communicators about how consumers are less trusting than they used to be. But where are the practical solutions for improving trust between brands and their audiences?
Mostly I see surveys and institutes and panel discussions—not practical guidance. That’s where trust signals come in.
Think of “trust signals” as the evidence points that serve to build trust between brands and their constituencies online. Trust signals are the tools that should fill up every PR professional’s toolkit in 2021. A modern public relations agency should be able to help their clients build a path of credibility—“breadcrumbs of trust”— that accelerates every aspect of the marketing funnel.
Trust signals include featured coverage on news websites, customer reviews on review sites, the endorsements of social media influencers, the Better Business Bureau seal on your website, to name a few. They all serve the same purpose; to earn people’s trust and draw them closer to your brand. I’ve put together a list of 77 trust signals to get you started.
The Google Trust Signals
In today’s article, I want to focus on one of the most important conveyers of trust online: Google.
Trust signals are as important to Google as they are to online buyers and other human audiences. Virtually every trust signal is a ranking factor in determining your site’s search position.
Take media coverage, for example. John Mueller from Google has stated that a single, high-value backlink from a major news website is worth more than “millions” of low-quality links.
That’s why SEO professionals and software have traditionally used terms like “Trust Flow,” “TrustRank” and “MozTrust” to describe what they do. They know that Google is trying to determine how trustworthy your site is in the same way that potential customers are.
This is particularly important to Google because it is more than a search engine. It is the most powerful media company in the world. And it has a long history of battling black-hat marketers who attempt to game Google to outrank better content. That reduces the quality of results, which has made these SEO outlaws Public Enemy No. 1 for the search giant.
How It Started and How It’s Going
It’s probably fair to say that the relentlessly expanding algorithm will one day be smarter than all of us. Maybe it already is, given that over the past quarter-century it has graduated from analyzing fewer than 10 million web pages to hundreds of billions today.
That’s not quite the googol (10¹ºº) of pages that Larry Page and Sergey Brin had in mind when they named their company, but it’s heading in that direction. And it has indexed all this information to create an ever-improving formula for organizing the web.
It’s a formula that gets brainier every day.
A Third-Party Endorsement Algorithm
When Page and Brin launched Google in 1998, the search engine was powered by its unique PageRank algorithm, which counted the number and quality of hyperlinks to web pages to determine how highly each page should rank. The underlying assumption was that the websites with the most value were the ones that received validation—in the form of links—from other sites.
If you think about it, this is not much different from how consumers make decisions about brands. In the same way that you are more likely to trust a brand that has received positive reviews, social media buzz, or media coverage, Google sees links from other sites as endorsements. And just as an endorsement from a top media source or influencer carries more weight than that of an individual customer, links from top sites have a bigger impact on search than links from sites with little influence or traffic.
In the early days, Google could only comprehend the basics of language and could only differentiate one website from another based on the number of links coming and going from each site. The gaps in their algorithm were exploited by the fledgling SEO industry, which developed sketchy tactics such as link farms, link spam and keyword stuffing to trick Google into ranking content higher than it deserved to be. This set Google off on a mission to close these gaps and make its search results more trustworthy and reliable.
Fighting Spammers with Algorithm Updates
Google first fought back with what became known as the “Google Florida Update” of its algorithm in 2003, which reduced the visibility of spammy sites. It has been issuing regular algorithm updates to improve the quality of users’ search experience ever since.
Today, their algorithm is very close to reading text like human beings. It is as annoyed as you are by keyword stuffing—the practice where the same keywords are used over and over again on a page to catch their attention. Just as you respond to keyword stuffing by leaving the page, Google responds by making the page less visible in search results.
Since the improvements Google has made, its algorithm is more humanlike in how it rates and responds to content, so it should come as no surprise that most of their trust signals are the same as those that humans use to determine which websites to trust.
Google looks for websites that provide a good user experience, for example—sites with loads of well-organized content that is relevant for your users. And it looks for references (ideally with links) to your site in established sources, such as respected media outlets, industry blogs, and directories. It even takes your Google reviews and star ratings, as well as reviews on other sites, into account in its rankings.
The Hidden Trust Signals
While many of the specific signals Google looks for in determining its level of trust in your brand are also seen by your visitors, others are more hidden. Google sees them, but users likely don’t.
These SEO trust signals fall into three primary categories:
- Domain characteristics. While users may look at domain signals such as the credibility of your top-level domain (.com vs .buzz, for example), Google can also look at other signs that aren’t so visible, such as your domain’s age and length of registration.
- Website characteristics. Google looks at your site’s architecture, mobile-friendliness, and, of course, its backlink profile. Google also considers your site’s reputation history—whether your brand has ever been penalized for SEO misdeeds in the past.
- Engagement characteristics. While links remain a critical measure of the popularity of your site, Google now incorporates actual traffic data for a fuller view. The more engagement and interest in your site, the better.
I should add that Google is often pretty cagey about acknowledging the importance of these hidden signals—or even whether they use them at all. Their algorithm has been gamed by the SEO industry for so long, the search giant is cautious about sharing information that can be exploited to diminish the quality of results.
Google Trusts Your Brand More When Users Search for You By Name
For PR pros, one of the most important Google trust signals is branded search.
In the early days of Google, its algorithm had little visibility into how visitors found a website or what they did when they got there. Beginning with the introduction of Google Analytics in 2005 and capped by the unveiling of Google Search Console in 2018, Google now analyzes more information about web traffic than any other company. And it does this in real-time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
All this information is fed into the algorithm to improve the search experience.
The more engagement and interest in your site, the more Google trusts your brand. One key measure of this engagement is the number of visitors who search for your website by name.
A branded search is a Google query that includes the name of your company, product or brand. It can be a simple search for your brand name (“Idea Grove,” in the case of my agency) or a “brand-plus-keyword” query that combines a brand name with a generic keyword or phrase (such as, “Idea Grove marketing agency“).
Would you be surprised if I told you that 90 of the top 100 Google search queries in 2020 were branded searches? Led by “Facebook,” “YouTube” and “Amazon,” branded searches also account for 14 of the top 15 Google queries, with only the non-branded keyword “weather” breaking in at No. 6.
For every “restaurants near me” (ranked #69), there’s a “dominos” (#64) and “pizza hut” (#73). And those branded searches deliver a strong trust signal to the algorithm. The more visitors a website gets from branded searches, the more SEO authority Google bestows on the brand.
Brand-plus-keyword searches may be even more powerful because Google looks at searches that combine your brand name with keywords to assess the topics and industries in which you have the most authority. According to research by Backlinko, Google may give your website a rankings boost for that keyword as a result—even when your brand name is not included in the search.
Google E-A-Ts Up Trust
Google uses what it calls the “E-A-T” formula for evaluating website page quality, an acronym for “expertise,” “authority” and “trustworthiness.” This formula has only grown in importance in the years since.
In its most recent Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, for example, Google references E-A-T more than 130 times.
I might argue the E-A-T acronym is a bit redundant. Expertise and authority, after all, are two of the main signals of trust.
Today more than ever, that’s what the Google algorithm is all about.