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Why Social Proof is Your Blog’s Silent Champion

Wisdom of the CrowdsDo you ever get an invite from someone on Facebook and have no idea who they are? What do you do? You look at the their profile to see if they’re real. You look to see if you have mutual friends or if they have a business that you might have interacted with. If you see that they have very few friends (none of which are mutual) and they have a very thin profile, you think they’re some spam profile and you ignore their invite.

When someone sees your blog for the very first time, they’re going to try to figure out whether or not they should trust you. It’s more than about making a good first impression. If you don’t make a good impression within a few seconds, that visitor will be gone and unlikely to ever come back. Showing that you are a credible and trustworthy site is absolutely crucial.

What they’re looking for are trust signals.

And one of the clearest signals of trust is social proof. Social proof is a simple concept, it’s when you use the reactions of others to help you know how you should respond. If someone says a joke and everyone else laughs, you laugh too – even if you didn’t hear the whole thing.

Whether you realize it or not, you do the exact same thing when you visit a blog for the first time. A fellow blogger emails you because they want to write a guest post for you, but you aren’t sure if this person is legitimate or just another linkbuilder looking to publish an article they bought for $3. So you go to their site, you look for signals that a legitimate blog would have – among other things, such as design and age, you will look for social proof. You look for comments, the commenters, subscriber counts, or even traffic figures if they’re published.

What Is Social Proof?

By the strict definition, social proof refers to when people look to others’ reactions to determine how they should react (think laugh tracks on a 90’s sitcom). When we talk about social proof with respect to websites, we’re using the term more like a little mixture of the halo effect and social proof. Visitors are looking for signals that support the idea that a site is believable, legitimate, and worth following.

They do this in a variety of ways. They look at the design of the site and try to determine if it looks like the site is being cared for. A simple design is fine, a free theme is fine, but if it’s too sparse or has broken images – those are bad signals.

With social proof, you’re trying to prove that you have a community. This isn’t a content farm type of site where your articles are meant to suck in search visitors and spit out advertising clicks. Unlike a chat room that will show you all of the people in the room, blogs only have a handful of metrics to show popularity – subscribers and comment counts. A high number in the Feedburner chiclet or a lot of comments on recent posts act as a proxy for community.

If you want to get technical, Techcrunch had this guest post by Aileen Lee, Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, about social proof. In it, she breaks down social proof into five types – 1) expert social proof, 2) celebrity social proof, 3) user social proof, 4) “wisdom of the crowds” social proof, and 5) “wisdom of your friends” social proof. I think that’s a great framework to work with though for most bloggers you’ll be relying on #4 (and maybe #5).

Emphasize Good Signals

You want to emphasize any evidence that you have a vibrant readership, that the site is old, gets a lot of visits, and is well maintained. Here’s a recent screenshot of the top of Bargaineering:

I put arrows to the comment count on the post and the number of subscribers the site has. Six comments isn’t a very high number but it’s not zero and if you have a string of posts with good comment counts (6 could easily be 12, if I responded to each comment) then you have yourself a good signal. If you don’t get a lot of comments, start asking for them.

The Feedburner chiclet says 20,000 readers, which is an impressive statistic. 20,000 people can’t all be wrong, right? What’s not pictured is that lower down in the sidebar is the archives list and it goes all the way back to 2005. Eight years of service is a plus.

So you know about comment counts and subscriber/follower numbers, what are some other signals you could leverage?

  • Media Appearances/Mentions: Did you get featured in the newspaper? Or appear on a radio show? Make sure visitors know about it. It’s like late night informercials touting they were “As Seen On TV” – it works! At Bargaineering, we had an entire page that listed all the places I was lucky enough to appear in from the New York Times to the Baltimore Sun to, my personal favorite, Marketplace Money. Those add a big shot of credibility because it’s hard to get big media to cover you.
  • Awards: Awards never hurt but they have to be awards that are difficult to win. Every week there is someone making a list of the 50 Best XYZ. Those people are trying to get you to add their award banner and link back to them. (reminds me of those Who’s Who letters back in high school!)
  • About Us: It wasn’t on Bargaineering but it is on Microblogger. My face, prominently featured in the top right sidebar, means there’s a person behind this site and at least one person willing to associate their face with the site. The About Us also gives you the opportunity to share your credentials.
  • Badges: There are a lot of blog directories that rank their members, you could join one, add the badge, and use that as a proxy for popularity. I was never a huge fan of this strategy but I see it used a lot in the mommy blogging community (i.e. Top Mommy Blogs, Picket Fence Blogs).
  • Endorsements & Testimonials: If you have a few friends (or clients) willing to vouch for you, ask for endorsements and put their quotes up on your site.

Minimize Bad Less Impressive Signals

Since you get to control everything on your site, don’t display information that could be viewed as a bad signal. Guess how many email subscribers we have as of this writing? About 200. It’s low compared to the 20,000 on Bargaineering but that’s fine by me, I love those two hundred subscribers. I just won’t be putting up a Feedburner chiclet or talking about subscriber counts for a little while.

We have a little over a hundred Likes on Facebook – again, not impressive enough to show (but love you guys who liked the page!). Instead, we’ll focus on the good things like the relatively high number of comments compared to site traffic and social metrics. It’s a great community with a lot of engagement, which is more important than one-and-done search visitors.

Avoid inconsistency. If I told you that Microblogger had 600,000 visitors a month, you would not believe me. There simply aren’t enough visible signs, like comments and social shares, to support that number. I would lose credibility even if it were true! If you see too many negative signals, you may not even believe the positive ones.

Absent proof, focus on design and other visual elements. When you’re new, you don’t have a lot of quantitative statistics to lean on. Focus on the qualitative aspects that add credibility, like design and testimonials. It’s good to have friends and family review the design of your site and ask for their honest opinion. Does it convey the right message? I think Microblogger looks clean and professional. My headshot, taken at a wedding, shows me in a suit because suits are awesome (I love the look of a tie, I hate actually wearing ties). Does my vision that match what they’re thinking? Are they willing to be quoted for the sidebar of your site?

Great Examples of Social Proof

I want to leave you with a few examples of great displays of social proof.

I Will Teach You To Be Rich
ramit-social-proofRamit Sethi tells you he’s giving you proof he’s legit. He’s written a New York Times bestseller, he’s been featured in almost every major financial news outlet you can think of both in print and TV (those are screencaps, one of which is the Today show). Not shown in the image above are all the testimonials he’s received from people who have taken his courses or read his advice.

mashable-social-sharesMashable’s stuff is always going to get a ridiculous number of shares but it looks even more ridiculous when you add them all together. 6.5k in big green font looks impressive and then it lets them put six social media sharing buttons without the fear that the low counts on any one of them would be construed as a negative signal. By the time you see “only” 36 pins, you’ll have gone through the 6.5k total, 3.3k shares on Facebook, and 2.3k tweets. It’s no longer a negative signal for Mashable and, if anything, it’s a negative signal for Pinterest!

Marie Forleo’s Branson Interview
marie-forleoMarie Forleo’s sidebar is chock full of celebrity social proof. First, you have her appearance on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday program. Then you have the rotating praise chat bubble. The screenshot shows a quote from Gabrielle Berstein (who was on the same episode of Super Soul Sunday), but you’ll see many quotes from others like Richard Branson. Then, you get to her interview Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island as part of Joe Polish’s Genius Network and it’s shown prominently in her sidebar.

Dan Schawbel’s Personal Branding Blog
dan-schawbelThis last one is from Dan Schawbel and it’s his About Me box in the right sidebar. You have a professional picture of him, a bit of his credentials (international bestselling author), and five quotes about it from reputable sources. As an added bonus, above that box is one that links to his RSS and social media counts – all of which are impressive as well.

What have you done with respect to social proof on your blog?

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In 2005, I founded a personal finance blog ( that became successful enough that I quit my career as a software developer in the defense industry. It is my goal to share everything I learned so that you can do the same - build an online business that let's you pursue your passion.

16 responses to “Why Social Proof is Your Blog’s Silent Champion”

  1. Robb says:

    Our comment totals and overall readership aren’t nearly as impressive as some other sites, but we have been successful at capturing email subscribers. That’s why I proudly display our Feedburner count chicklet that shows 7,500+ subscribers.

    I like the media pages, or “as seen in” designs that some bloggers display.

    I also write a bi-weekly column for a national newspaper, and so I need to find some way to capitalize on that – maybe an author box at the bottom of my posts?

    • Jim says:

      An author box would give you the chance to highlight the bi-weekly column, though that might get lost (how many people read author boxes? — I’m not sure if I’ll be keeping mine for long honestly)… maybe integrate it into the media pages/”as seen in?”

  2. Hermine says:


    I agree with the points you made in this post but, would also like to add to that by saying that blogs that have lots of Adsense on them (no matter how often they are updated or whether they have comments) takes that social proof down a notch for me.

    I’m not opposed to a few affiliate links in the sidebar but, just something about adsense that decreases my trust in someone’s blog.

    On that note, this post really got me thinking about my current niche site project and that one of the things I’d like to do differently than most people building niche sites, is to actually create something that can get some social proof going as well.

    Nice post, thank you!

    • Jim says:

      That’s something that has caught the eye of Google – too many advertisements above the fold is a negative indicator. It was called the Top Heavy update.

      Google Adsense ads aren’t very pretty and while I don’t have the same aversion to ads, I completely understand why it would be a negative trust signal for you. A lot of thin sites are jammed with ads and so it’s not hard to associate the two.

  3. Mike Collins says:

    It’s frustrating when you’re still trying to build up your social proof and don’t have the number of subscribers, tweets, likes, etc. that would serve as social proof. Is there a certain number you like to reach before displaying them? I’m guessing it’s like hitting the tipping point and the numbers start growing rapidly?

    • Jim says:

      You have to break this up into two answers – social shares and subscribers.

      For social shares on an article, I think you should show it even if it says 0. They are less significant as trust factors unless you can show a lot but people don’t see 0 shares as a bad thing if you’re a “regular” blog. A couple shares here and there are enough, coupled with other factors like comments. I believe that comments are really the biggest quantitative trust factor for a blog.

      With subscribers for an email list, I think you need to get into the hundreds before you display it as a counter in the sidebar. There’s something about the number 100 that makes people think “big” – I tried finding a study about it but came up empty.

  4. Carolyn says:

    I shared this article with all of my blogging colleagues. I’ve read numerous articles about social proof – some of them fascinating and filled with studies and statistics – but this is the best overview I’ve seen.

    At my own blog, I have used almost all of the indicators you mention: Facebook fans (my biggest following), social shares for each post, my own smiling face (not in suit and tie), mentions by media organizations, an “As seen on BlogHer” badge, and testimonials. BUT – I think I need to do better. It’s really, really, really difficult for me to “self-promote,” but it absolutely essential so that readers can see that my site is actually a credible resource.

    One thing I think I need to do is make those signals a little more obvious. They are scattered (hidden, really – because of the self-promotion thing) throughout the site.

    I need a better site design. (Yours is great! It is very clean and professional.) I’m working on that behind the scenes.

    My Adsense ads are just going to have to stay where they are, since that’s what allows me to stay home working on being a credible resource. But I might remove some of the others that aren’t doing anything for me.

    My comment counts are low, and probably always will be low, so in designing a new theme I will probably find a way to hide that “0 comments” tag unless there are comments. (Or change the wording of it to “Leave a Reply” instead.) But my social shares are usually pretty good for a regular blog. So far, I haven’t publicized my newsletter readership because compared to my colleagues, it’s pretty low. But it’s over a thousand, so maybe?

    Those “as seen on” logos are great, and I need to find a good way to display the few that I have. I’ve noticed that when I see them on someone’s site, I always respond positively and assume the site is credible.

    Thanks for being a great resource. Again, excellent, excellent article. I agree wholeheartedly.

  5. Melinda says:

    I feel like this is one area I’ve done fairly well with. I have over 2700 fans on Facebook. And I get a decent amount of likes on posts. I just keep plugging away. I need more commenters and likes but I’ll get there!

    • Melinda says:

      Pardon my mistake there. I don’t know where I came up with that number 🙂 LOL Apparently I am seeing things that are not there. I’m almost to 2300 fans, not 2700. What a bummer to realize this morning that apparently I can’t read numbers.

  6. Great overview Jim. I am just getting started so I do not have to many high counts, but I do have over 1,000 twitter followers. That would be a great addition to my blog. I also tend to get a lot of comments, so I show that off as well. Thanks again for the great content.

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