Looking for something? A reputable contractor? Hiking boots? Cat cafes in your area?
Whatever it is, you’re in luck—the power of modern search engines allows us to find whatever we need in just a few clicks (or taps, or shouts at your AI assistant).
However, with so many options available, it’s only natural that not every website will be on the level. That means customers are often left to determine whether or not a company can be trusted on the basis of its web presence. The company which sells you the comfiest boots you’ve ever worn may in fact only be listed a couple of spots above a ‘shoe company’ that steals your information and forwards your email address to a spam bot.
If you’re evaluating a potential vendor, partner, or online retailer you’re unfamiliar with, here are a few ways to tell if they’re legit.
What are people saying?
In the United States, the Better Business Bureau stands at the front line between consumers and untrustworthy enterprises. On their website, visitors can search through an incredibly thorough database of registered businesses, track scams by location, and read user-generated reports. The BBB also allows businesses to respond to reports, which allows visitors to see both sides of a story, and make more informed choices as a result.
Official business listings and independent reviews on platforms such as Google and Yelp are also helpful in weeding out untrustworthy companies. A flood of one-star reviews is never a good sign.
Although, it is important not to take a low customer rating completely at face value. A local business may only have a low customer rating because it has only been reviewed once or twice. Take the time to carefully read through reports and reviews with the following questions in mind:
Are the reviews up to date?
A business can change and evolve a lot throughout the course of a year, or even in just six months. If the latest reviews of a business are from over two or three years ago, they may not be entirely accurate to how the business is operating today.
Are there any common themes found within these reviews?
Multiple clients and customers may call out specific shortcomings of a business, but if you’re in the market for a different service, certain reviews may not be entirely relevant for your needs. For example, a customer may believe that their local mechanic overcharged them for a repair following a collision. But if you’re only going in for an oil change or state inspection, those complaints may not mean much to you.
What’s the language that people are using in these reviews?
Word choice may provide an important distinction between companies that are untrustworthy, and which are only being criticized for poor performance. Quick searches for words such as ‘scam,’ ‘trustworthy,’ and ‘no response’ may be able to paint a more accurate picture of the business.An abundance of reviews which open with “do not trust this business,” written in all caps can also be quite telling.
Check the website.
They say never judge a book by its cover. There isn’t really an equivalent phrase when talking about the internet. An investment into web design, user interface, and functionality can speak volumes as to the legitimacy of a business.
Plenty of valid businesses lack a modern web presence. But very few illegitimate businesses boast a professional, top-of-the-line website.
If a website is missing the following features and functionality tools, it may not be entirely trustworthy:
- Contact forms
- Search bar
- Physical address (if they are not an online-exclusive business)
- Menus and submenus
- About us page
- FAQ page
- Copyright information
While certain websites will sell domain space to advertising agencies, a cluttered and messy homepage—that requires liberal use of the X button—is likely not worth your time as a visitor.
Pay close attention to the content found on the website itself. Certain tell-tale signs of an untrustworthy website will make themselves apparent within text and images.
An abundance of grammatical and spelling errors within the company’s native language
Many websites are constructed by small teams or even single individuals. Consistent mistakes, however, either highlight the fact that the business does not consider their web presence a priority—and therefore do not regularly check their website often enough to catch glaring errors—or that quality assurance was never part of the business plan.
A lack of images or images of low quality and resolution
A gallery of images that fails to convey the ethos and misrepresents the market of a business may not always be a red flag. Coupled with the lack of a distinctive company logo, as well as the lack of any headshots or group shots of the company’s leadership and employees, and you may be looking at an illegitimate business.
A lack of consumer-facing content
Interacting with your customer or client base, and understanding their wants and needs, are key strategies for the continued growth of any business. Some companies accomplish this via consistent blog posts, newsletters, and links to social media. Make a note if a company’s website expresses no interest in reaching out to their visitors beyond a transaction.
Unsubstantiated claims should never be taken at face value, no matter how solid they seem at first glance. Be wary of language that cites surveys and data which cannot be traced back to more than one source.
When in doubt, pick up the phone.
Contacting a business directly may be the most effective strategy in determining their legitimacy. An untrustworthy business likely lacks the tools necessary for quality customer service. Just make sure you’re always extra careful when interacting with a potentially fraudulent business or individual over the phone.
Firstly, pay attention to how long it takes to get through to a human being. Outside of large, national, and multinational corporations, long hold times are almost always a cause for concern.
Once you do reach a live customer representative, take note of their tone. Are they friendly and helpful? Do they provide detailed and informed answers to your questions? Or do they seem distracted, disorganized, impatient, aggressive, etc.?
Most importantly: are they speaking to you like a person or only as someone with valuable personal information and a bank account?
Keep in mind: These are the same questions and concerns your customers or clients are thinking before they choose to interact with your business.
Healthy suspicion is a useful tool in determining which businesses deserve our time and attention. Hopefully, within this article, we have demonstrated which missing web features scream out, “Do not trust this place!”
If your company’s web presence and customer service are trailing behind that of your competitors, you may be losing business on the simple fact that your visitors don’t believe you’re actually capable of servicing their needs.
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