I recently tried to buy a marine handheld GPS online. Like everyone else, I started with some consumer research on Google and finally ended up chasing the best bargain across a few price comparisons engines. I did found some very compelling prices from online stores that I never had heard of before. In the end, however, I decided to buy from Amazon.com. Although Amazon.com commanded a price premium, I still elected to buy from them. Why? Because, I knew that I would have a safe experience and that they would ship the product on time. All the other e-tailers were unknown to me, and I was not willing to take the chance of getting into a hassle for a 10% discount.
This personal experience seems revealing of the state of online commerce today. Short of a strong brand, the long tail of e-merchants is facing head winds when it comes to attract new online customers. It is not enough to be found on search engines. It is not enough to offer better prices. It is not enough to carry more specialized inventories. e-tailers need to inspire trust and confidence to online shoppers. Short of that, consumers will always privilege a larger online competitor and a known brand when it comes to making a purchase decision.
This speaks to a missing element of today's Internet infrastructure, a new breed of Web service that sits between merchants and consumers. In fact, search and price comparison engines only do half the work. They point us to merchants. Yet, they fall short from providing us with the necessary information to make an informed decision. We need a trust engine. We need easy access to a merchant profile, policy and business practices. We need an infrastructure service to discover a merchant's business reputation. We need a trusted third party that can provide accountability when such merchant falls short of our expectations. Easier said than done, but this significant void also creates a promising business opportunity for whom can fill it.
So, what would a trust engine do? What information would it have to provide to become an indispensable tool to both consumers and online merchants? Maybe, a combination of the best ideas from today's offline and online services could do the trick. Indeed, it is easy to be inspired by some of the most useful services that already aspire to feel that gap: from the venerable offline Better Business Bureau, to eBay merchant reputation, to the more user-centric and Web 2.0 Yelp. Yes, more than ever, the Internet seems ready for a network wide business reputation infrastructure.