For most of us, it’s not hard to recall the world before the Internet. But it’s impossible for young people—especially those born beginning in the late 80s and early 90s. Today’s under-30s were born into a virtually-connected world. And for those of us who remember a world when we socialized, networked, learned, or did business in person, by phone, or by the written word, this new landscape presents some challenges.
In 2017, literally half the planet spends a good chunk of their day online—be it on desktops or laptops at work or increasingly on mobile devices, from phones to tablets. It’s how 3.4 billion of us live, how we work and run our families—from paying bills to signing up for parent-teacher night. It’s how many of us are educated, in a program or on our own. It’s where we trade, bank, and shop. It’s where we meet socially and where we network. It’s where we get our news and where we go to be entertained. 
I’ve likely left out a thousand other reasons we are online. But whatever we’re doing, a lot of us have trouble trusting much of what’s on the Internet—especially those us of who remember clearly a world where we dealt with each other in person and trust was often something you just felt in your gut. We’re dubious of those we do not know and cannot see. Still, we’re all online and for many it’s a leap of faith handing over their money, typing in their private financial data information.
Are we just supposed to just have faith? No; we do have a measure of control by implementing some relatively easy measures to ensure our safety and privacy online.
For example, the U. S. Government’s online safety website explains that while the Internet makes everyday stuff like shopping and banking quicker and more convenient, there are plenty of swindlers and con artists out there trying to pick our pockets, or worse. 
But you know you’d hold your purse close if you were on a packed city street, or protect those holiday gifts by locking your car doors, or not flash cash around when in a sketchy location, right? Well, taking steps to protect yourself online is the same thing. But locking your doors doesn’t necessarily mean someone can’t break in.
And that’s why we are “thee of little faith.” Especially online. We want to not only feel safe but be safe—and to feel safe, we need to trust. And that’s not just a concern for us as consumers; it’s of particular concern for any online business, agency, organization, or company.
What Happens When We Go Online?
For starters, just to get access to free information, we generally give up some basics—our digital identity:
- Email address
- Our IP address (the unique numerical address given to our device)
- Sometimes our actual geographic address.
This is why identity theft is such a concern.
So we have made a trade: access to our information in exchange for access to theirs. And then we share our likes, our social habits, our persona…and possibly our latest dessert splurge. We leave our digital footprint everywhere we go online. So along with items needing extra security—say, our credit card number for an online purchase—we’ve shared ourselves, put ourselves out there. All this information is compiled and sold off to marketers and other “third parties,” who then target us with everything from the seemingly benign ad that alerts us our favorite olive oil is $1 off at our supermarket to even more intrusive marketing.
A 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NITA) found that almost half of those surveyed were hesitant to engage in online shopping, banking, or interacting on social media because of a lack of trust and concerns about privacy. 
But the main reason people don’t trust the Internet is that their information is being shared with third parties without their consent (or often knowledge).
Learning the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of online interactions and how to protect yourself is known as “digital media literacy.” But here’s the headline: currently half of Americans don’t know the basics, from how to block ads to how their browsing history is stored. So getting literate is vital.
But digitally literate or not, most folks just plain don’t trust the Web.
What is Online Trust, Anyway?
Trust is as important a factor to the success of online interactions as it is offline (in person), say researchers.  We have to make a decision—in the real or virtual world—to trust a bank, a store, a business, or a product, and we usually do that based on what we know, like reputation and our belief that they’ll deliver as promised.
I’m no fan of the term “fake news.” In fact, I think the more we use it the more power we assign the term. “Propaganda” may be a better word. But regardless of how we define our terms:
- we don’t believe what we read
- we believe what we read and then find out it’s bunk
- we don’t believe the truth when it’s right there
The Trust Project, out of the University of Santa Clara, is working on this. 
Online reviews, too—especially as a tool for small business—are kind of a disaster. First, how do you judge whether a review is real and unbiased? Can you even trust reviews? 
Who Do We Trust?
Not only do we not trust digital providers and myriad online business, we often don’t believe what we read—we don’t trust online information and news sources. And importantly, we don’t feel safe and secure online, believing neither social media nor government can be trusted. And the very last thing reputable online businesses or institutions want is for us to not trust them; they’d fail if consumer trust was completely lost. 
A recent World Economic Forum (WEF) analysis found half of those surveyed don’t trust their digital providers with how they define—much less use—personal and private data. People feel powerless and don’t believe their personal data is valued, or protected. And when people don’t trust a company, whether that mistrust is earned or not, the company’s chances of success are diminished. 
It’s just like a Mom & Pop butcher shop: if they’re putting their finger on the scale and you notice, you’ll take your business elsewhere. This is no different. The problem is, we don’t know what’s going on with the virtual scale; is it tipping in our favor? We don’t believe it is. So an online business—a retailer, a media company, a service provider, a social media platform, you name it—would do well to be transparent, candid, and honest. Trust matters.
DigiDay.com found we’re in turmoil. Factor in so-called “fake news,” shady marketing, and incessant pop-ups, and we believe less and less. So if we’re less likely to trust, it’s a problem for any online industry.
Especially advertising. For example, the numbers suggest folks find an ad in a newspaper far more trustworthy than an ad they see online. 
This graphic demonstrates that folks who grew up with broadcast TV, ink-on-paper news, AM news radio, and billboards have, over time—whether earned or not—found those to be more trustworthy.
But the questions of online trust may be generational. For example, a 25-year-old who grew up with the Internet is less likely to watch broadcast TV, read a local newspaper, or listen to AM radio news, and as such may be more likely to trust an ad showing up on their Snapchat or YouTube. Generation Zs (born since 2000) “…watch YouTube videos with the same ferocity that baby boomers watched ‘the tube.’” 
And Millennials (born about 1981 through 2000)—we’re talking people 18 to mid-to-late 30s—don’t care about cable TV; they prefer Netflix. 
So we can expect that as us Baby Boomers (1964-1980) ride off into the sunset, this data will change. And though we all do a lot more than shop on the Internet, businesses, agencies, industries, and institutions are trying harder everyday to earn consumer trust.
Online Businesses: “If There’s No Trust, There’s No Us”
Digital providers and companies that do business online generally are trying to earn our trust. Forbes says “Customers and clients are smart. They know when you’re being up front or when they are told a mistruth. If honesty is the best policy, they’ll appreciate and admire you more when you admit to a mistake, rather than playing games…” 
A recent report in the Harvard Business Review describes the process of earning customer trust generally for service businesses, but hones in on the “perceived contract.” We buy something and we expect to get what was promised, what was advertised. But we’re often expected to read an entire contract, or policy—in the case of an airline HBR examined, its policy runs 46 pages. 
Come on. And you expect our trust?
They’re working on it. Trust-drivers, they call it. 
Maybe the most important of these are what are known as “trust badges.” Like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval created in 1885. Earning customer trust—and then loyalty—130 years ago was this stamp of approval, which meant quality assurance and consumer confidence and protection. Bottom line: if a product or service didn’t meet expectations, you got your money back without a six-month rigmarole. That’s earning trust. 
Knowing we can no longer go on that gut feeling from personal interaction, online companies selling a service or a product that feature trust badges are more likely to be seen as trustworthy. These badges or logos are often located near the bottom of a website’s home page; if you don’t see one or more of these, it’s better to skip that site:
- Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificates (used to create secure Internet connection to keep bad guys out)
- The Better Business Bureau (BBB)
- PayPal verified
- TRUSTe Certified Privacy
- Scan Alert
These are some examples of seals that offer their guarantee your information is safe and secure. So it behooves an online company or institution to provide consumers a seal of approval. 
As an aside, the U.S. government says it does not operate a publicly trusted certificate authority itself, but can help you at least understand them better. 
Want to Earn Our Trust? Reputation is Everything
Billionaire business magnate Richard Branson said, “All you have in business is your reputation—so it’s very important that you keep your word.” 
According to a Forbes magazine 2017 report, the list of America’s most trusted companies (not including financial institutions like banks) includes online and brick-and-mortar businesses you never heard of. But, plenty you may have heard of: Ulta Beauty, Lazy-Boy, Big Lots, The Children’s Place, Williams and Sonoma, Yelp!, Crocs, Medifast, Daktronics, American Public Education, Sonic, and NetGear—to name a few. 
And expanding the list to worldwide, you’ll know these names: Rolex, LEGO, Nike, Nintendo, Walt Disney, Apple, Hilton, Adidas, Netflix, Microsoft, IBM, Panasonic, SONY, and Colgate-Palmolive, among scores of others. Why? Reputation. 
But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. As Mark Twain said, “Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep ‘til noon.” 
So, trust, but cautiously—with one eye on the butcher’s scale.