Trust: The Backbone of Consumer Satisfaction

Trust is the backbone of customer satisfaction. And therein lies an interesting divergence between the general public’s attitudes and perceptions toward search engines and search engine marketers’ attitudes and perceptions. This divergence exposes a potential Achilles’ heel for all the engines, especially Google.

At SES San Jose this week, comprehensive sessions ranged from the basics to the advanced. The combination of several sessions and some recent news got me thinking about search engines, consumers’ habitual use of one over another, and how the opinions of search engines differ between the SEM (define) community and consumers.

Consumers are clearly in love with Google, or at least infatuated. This can be dangerous for a brand because everlasting love for a company is rare. Other than Harley-Davidson — which has customers tattooing themselves with its brand — many brands in categories with low switching costs can find the public to be fickle. The digital graveyard is full of companies that once had huge brands and high customer satisfaction.

Let’s think about how trust and customer satisfaction relate to a brand or product. Most people have a favorite search engine, and for most of them (except for those residing in a few countries outside the U.S.) that search engine is probably Google. Google has established itself among consumers as a trusted resource, as revealed by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which came out during SES. The index placed Google at 86 out of 100 in a near tie with Apple (in another industry), another strong contender. The other search engines didn’t fare nearly as well: Yahoo was 77, Microsoft/MSN was at 75, Ask at 74, and AOL at 69.

Trust is the backbone of a search engine, and trust directly translates into a high customer satisfaction score. Trust arises out of predictability in personal, business, and brand relationships. If you don’t always get what you want but you know what to expect, trust builds over time. Google was the first to deliver relevance, and that relevance turned into trust and consumer, customer, and searcher satisfaction. Everything in Google is well labeled for the searcher, and the clean, non-cluttered interface works. Similarly, Apple is known for products that are predictably powerful yet easy to use.

However, marketers’ experience with Google (and the other search engines for that matter) has moved to one of less predictability and greater opacity. In the old days of the GoTo.com bid environment, the landscape (with a few exceptions) communicated to you the cause and effect of making bid changes, regardless of whether you looked up the bid on the Web or the API (define). As more marketers started using automated bid management solutions, this predictability became increasingly transient, but at least marketers had some transparency and this (rightly or wrongly) built trust.

In my first SES session, “Search Industry Update” moderated by Sandeep Aggarwal, senior Internet research analyst at Collins-Stewart, the entire panel concurred that Google continues to have momentum and is the one to beat.

In an afternoon keynote, Lee Siegel, author of “Against the Machine,” predicted a backlash against the Internet as it has evolved. His book (which I’ve partially read) discusses how there are unforeseen consequences due to technology, and the Internet is responsible for largely unforeseen positive and negative effects on individuals and society.

During Siegel’s interview with Kevin Ryan, VP of global content for SES, much of the discussion centered on the loss of self as more interactions become online and instantaneous. However, after looking at his book I realized that trust is a theme as well. When bloggers, writers, Flickrers, SEO professionals, and online pundits can do damage by seeming trustworthy without actually being trustworthy, the system is broken.

This ties back to the Microsoft keynote by Satya Nadella, senior VP of the search, portal, and advertising platform group. Nadella said Microsoft’s strategy is to increase transparency within Internet ad systems. Google may or may not concur with the judgment that increased transparency within keyword and media auctions is critical. But if brands are built on trust and trust is eroding within a portion of the online media ecosystem — even if it’s eroding among advertisers and not consumers — the consequences may be significant for anyone who ignores the need to maintain trust, creating opportunities for other players who build trust.

If there’s an Achilles’ heel at Google, it may be a change in perception of trust. For a company that originally had a “do no evil” credo, expectations are high among both consumers and advertisers that this credo is one that will continue to be delivered upon.

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