Stamps of approval: Working to build trust in e-commerce

Scroll to the bottom of any number of Web sites, and you'll see seals from the BBB,, and Shopper Connection, among other standard-enforcing groups. What do those stamps mean? TechRepublic explains.

After you’ve tiptoed through the tulips at the top of’s home page, you’ll find another kind of bloom at the bottom: seals from the Better Business Bureau,, and Shopper Connection.

While the company doesn’t have proof that its customers favor the site more because of the stamps of approval, spokeswoman Eileen Isola believes the stamps do give their site more credibility.

“I know when I go to sites [with seals], it makes me feel better,” she said. “Our standpoint has always been that if you’re aligned or involved with companies that have a name in the industry, that’s meaningful to a consumer.”

So, how difficult is it to add such a seal to your company’s site? How much will it help your business practices? Would business stamps help reassure visitors once they arrive at your Web site? Let’s start our examination of this e-commerce trend by looking at some of the more common Web site business seals.

Whose stamp says what?
Besides reassuring visitors, standards seals—which are usually found on a site’s home page—are meant to help distinguish sites from the thousands of others on the Web.

The BBB’s seal, one of the most recognizable, assures visitors that the business is following its code of online business practices by:
  • Disclosing information about the business, goods and services, and transactions
  • Refraining from deceptive advertising, marketing, or use of technology
  • Posting and following privacy policies, providing security, and respecting customers’ wishes in regards to unsolicited e-mail
  • Addressing and resolving disputes by customers, clients, or licensees
  • Being sensitive to children under 13 if their business targets them

The BBB gives seals for reliability, privacy, and “kids privacy.”

Other seals are more interactive.

A seal from allows consumers to instantly evaluate their online shopping experience in a survey assessing the company’s performance. The company says that more than 3,000 businesses use BizRate on their Web sites.

The nonprofit TRUSTe, which has issued its “trustmark” to well-known sites like MSN, Yahoo, and Excite, focuses on privacy concerns, while Shopper Connection claims its members have “the highest level of customer service, security and convenience.”

Better Web standards
One of the newest seals offered to businesses is PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Better Web program. With advertisements in The New York Times andThe Industry Standard, the company has certainly been one of the most highly-promoted.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ program focuses on sales terms, privacy, security, and customer complaint policies for businesses. For example, the company’s standards for sales terms give detailed requirements for:
  • Item selection, ordering and order cancellation
  • Item shipping and delivery
  • Payment terms
  • Item return or exchange

PricewaterhouseCoopers began the program by reviewing 300 Web sites and noting the inconsistencies in how much information each site disclosed and how it was shared. By the same token, almost none of the sites PricewaterhouseCoopers reviewed were up to the standards that the company developed.

 “From a consumer standpoint, it would be difficult to go from Web site to Web site and find a consistent format,” said Maryann Murphy, a company partner in charge of the BetterWeb program. ”What we’re finding now is that all of the applicants are making changes to their Web sites.”

So far, only one business, Van Kampen Funds, has been given the seal as part of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ program. Steve Messinger, executive director of e-commerce for Van Kampen, said the seal is another way the company can assure customers that the site is a safe place to conduct their business.

Messinger contends that a seal from PricewaterhouseCoopers will mean more to its customers, many of whom are novices to the Web, than one that’s well-known only on the Internet, like TRUSTe.

Murphy said the company expects another 10 to 15 businesses to come on board within the next few weeks. Though the program is currently targeted to U.S. businesses, it will be expanded to other countries later this year.

Murphy said PricewaterhouseCoopers will also raise the bar each year by toughening its standards. If a company doesn’t comply, they risk losing the seal.

Do seals help?
Despite their growing presence on Web sites, there is some question as to whether a seal is valuable, said Steve Telleen, an analyst with Giga Information Group. He argues that currently, no seal has the brand awareness that instantly lets users know what seeing one on a Web site means.

“There are a number of seals out there, and after awhile, the consumer gets sort of lost,” he said. “I’m not sure that customers look so much at the seal.”

Because of the Web’s interactivity, Telleen contends that customers are generally the best barometer of whether a company’s Web practices are fair. If, for example, a customer in the middle of a transaction feels she isn’t getting enough information, she won’t complete her purchase.

“The customers are going to get fed up long before they get down to the seal,” Telleen said. “You don’t need a seal to tell the customer what they’re feeling on the site.”

Telleen, who runs Giga’s Web Score Card program, a consulting service that compares and evaluates Web sites based on “best practices,” said a seal’s value can come from a company having to assess their own Web site to determine if they’re worthy of a seal of approval.

“The value is not necessarily for the customer to look at this seal,” Telleen said. “It’s for the company to evaluate their Web site.”

Telleen argues that seals have the most potential to help both businesses and customers when they harness the Web’s capabilities. He sees BizRate, which uses customers to help evaluate a site’s strengths and weaknesses, as one of the best examples.

“BizRate is doing that much more effectively with larger samples of the customer base and is collecting good experiences as well as complaints,” Telleen said. “In a brick-and-mortar world, you couldn’t do it.”

After making a transaction on a Web site that includes a BizRate seal, customers can fill out a survey on how that online retailer performed. That information is sent back to BizRate so that other consumers can see how well businesses handled their customers.

Customers also receive an e-mail message from BizRate to determine whether a customer received their order on time or whether they received helpful customer service.

Each day, businesses receive information from BizRate telling them how customers responded.

John Phelps, vice president of business development for BizRate, said the process allows consumers to see whether a company’s Web site satisfied other customers and lets businesses see whether their strategies are working.

CDNow can look at their day-to-day performance and their customer satisfaction,” Phelps said.

Of the people who make online purchases where a BizRate seal is featured, about 10 percent respond. Though Phelps wouldn’t give specifics on the total number of responses that BizRate has processed, he said it was “in the millions.”

Telleen also singled out TRUSTe as an exception to seals that are simply placed on a site without meeting stringent criteria. “It’s one thing to put your privacy [statement] out there,” Telleen said. “It’s another thing to have someone audit to see that you’re actually doing what you’re saying.”

However, Telleen said TRUSTe received a black eye last November when it learned that one of its customers, RealNetworks Inc., was collecting information about what users of its RealJukebox software listened to without their knowledge. (RealNetworks apologized to its users after the practice was revealed, altered its privacy statement to reflect it, and issued a patch to disable the function.)

Despite the embarrassment, TRUSTe seems to have come out ahead. The company, along with the BBB, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and other groups and organizations, was named to a Federal Trade Commission’s advisory committee on online access and security.

TRUSTe spokesman Dave Steer said the company, which has its seal on more than 1,300 sites and portals, has become recognized in the industry:

 “What it tells consumers is that, as a business, you really respect their concerns of privacy, and you’re going above and beyond to give them the tools they need to protect it.”
Do you check to see whether the Web sites you’re using have been approved by some of the organizations we’ve mentioned? Is your business participating in any of their standards programs? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.