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That's MY Business – When Companies Ask For Too Many Details

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,
This past week, I read with tremendous interest, Kim Krause Berg’s post on her bad Usability Experience attempting to file for financial aid for her child who is about to start college. Kim lives in Pennsylvania and her state is requiring parents to file for this service online, despite the fact that this forces them to give out loads of very personal information over the Internet. Kim preferred not to do this, and so followed the financial aid website’s instructions to come pick up forms at the office. Unfortunately, no one at the office had any forms for Kim and the situation dissolved into an argument that must have driven her crazy. Her interactions with the financial aid folks reminded me of something I’d experienced earlier in the week.
I was doing some research of Adobe products. I was trying to understand what was included in one of their big package-deal products, and their website simply wasn’t giving me the list of components I was searching for. So, I called their sales department. The brusque operator demanded that I give him a) my name, b) my email address c) my telephone number, and I believe he wanted my home address, too. When I told him I just had a basic question about their products and didn’t wish to give out all of my personal contact information, he said he couldn’t speak to me. I’m not a confrontational person, but I got into an argument with him and told him in no uncertain terms how ridiculous their company’s policy was if they actually demand you give them such details in order to even begin thinking about actually making a purchase. What a way to kill a sale!
In the end, I demanded to be transferred to a manager and got my question answered without having to reveal the story of my life. Needless to say, I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth about the Adobe brand.
Also rolling around in my head is Bill Slawski’s recent post on Microsoft’s application for two patents that would enable them to collect offline data from sources like credit cards, grocery store cards, cell phones, digital television systems and other systems that they would then use to determine which ads and which organic results to show to people on-line. For months now, SEOs and marketers have been shaking their heads over Google’s tracking of people’s Internet habits to determine which results and ads are shown to them (personalized search), but Microsoft’s idea really takes the cake. You don’t even need to be online to be on somebody’s radar. The invasion of personal privacy is simply a shock, as far as I’m concerned, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see such activity eventually spark a back-to-the-land type movement wherein people go back-to-the-unplugged-old-days in order to regain some semblance of anonymity.
Somewhere in the haze of my childhood memories, I have a recollection of my mother arguing with a librarian who wanted to taker her Social Security Number in order to issue a library card. My mother, who was a child during WWII and looks with horror on people being given numbers and labels, was so upset that a stranger would demand she prove herself with digits in order to be able to check out a book. I cannot recall how that situation was resolved, but that same spirit of repugnance rises in me when the clerk at K-mart wants my zip code in order to ring up my sale. Make no mistake, no one is being tracked for their own, individual good…it’s always to benefit some system, corporate, legal or otherwise.
And In The Small Business World…
When we perform basic SEO reviews for potential new clients, one of the things I always make sure to test is their contact form. For a major percentage of small businesses, particularly service-oriented ones, that contact form is one of the main ways in which the business hopes to facilitate a conversation that will lead to a sale/a contract/being hired for a job, etc. Unlike a shopping cart form that does, indeed, have to get billing and shipping addresses, few contact forms actually need to demand extensive details from the user. If your business intends to respond to a question via email, name and email are all you really need to ask for on that form. If the form is meant to facilitate a phone call, name and number may really cover the waterfront. In addition to being less invasive, short forms are easier to fill out and may actually lead to you doing more business!
Some 8 times out of 10, one of the Usability recommendations we make in our SEO reports is to cut down the form to request the very fewest details necessary. Ease-of-use aside, your business should always be striving to improve its trustworthiness, and you shouldn’t expect strangers to trust you just because you have a website. Some unfortunately naive people do trust everything they find on the web and get scammed because of this. A truly trustworthy business is going to set its clients’ privacy as a high priority and is going to work towards the point where the client feels comfortable handing over their address, their credit card number and what have you. It’s better for both the business and the client that this be a gradual goal rather than an automatic assumption, I believe.
I’d like to end this post on a positive note. Donna at SEOScoop posted last week about a PayPal Plug-In that was released in November. This feature allows you to pay with PayPal anywhere that MasterCard is accepted. The neat part about it is that it generates a temporary, unique 16 digit number that draws funds directly from your PayPal account. It’s a nice alternative to giving your actual credit card number to a company you aren’t sure you can trust.
Last night, I was talking on the phone with my mother. She was looking to buy some special fabric to make curtains with for her living room. She’d found the material online for a better price than what she would have to pay if she shopped at the local fabric store. But, she’d never heard of the online business, and she felt nervous about giving them her credit card information. In the end, she just wasn’t comfortable with the online option and she shopped locally, instead. Some people might call this paranoid, but I think my mother is smart to be discerning about what she’s willing to give out to people she doesn’t know, and I think it’s a good idea for all of us who run businesses on the web to think about the concept of trust and the different hues it has taken on since the advent of the Internet.