How Big a Problem Is It for Google and Facebook That Consumers Don’t Trust Them?

2 Web brands rank surprisingly low in relevance survey

It's impossible for most of us to imagine a world without Google or Facebook. The two technology brands have been around only 18 and 12 years, respectively, but they have revolutionized how we learn, shop and socialize. However, according to a new study, the brands also share a serious liability, even in the minds of consumers who use and like them.

People don't trust them.

According to a survey just released by consultancy Prophet, neither Facebook nor Google is among the top 10 most relevant brands as ranked by consumers. Nor are they in the top 50. In fact, Facebook barely made the top 100. That's not because consumers don't find these platforms useful or even inspirational—they do. But when it comes to faith and confidence in what happens to people's personal information, everything falls apart.

"These platforms are so enjoyable—Facebook is in the top 20 to 30 brands in making people happy, and it meets an important need," said Jesse Purewal, associate partner at Prophet. "But being able to depend on it? It's not a brand people trust."

And Prophet's numbers tell the story of just how little they do. Asked to rate Facebook as "a brand I can depend on," respondents ranked it at 133. And as "a brand I can trust," Facebook fell lower still, to 200. Google's trust ranking was slightly better—130—but not by much. Overall, Google and Facebook join the Prophet's Brand Relevance Index at 55 and 98, respectively.

Of course, trust issues are not new to Internet brands, whose business models frequently depend on harvesting data users don't like to think they're giving up. A study released by MEF last year, for example, found that 49 percent of 15,000 mobile media users cited lack of trust as the main reason not to download an app.

In 2014, online identity manager MyLife queried 4,000 social media users about companies they trusted with their personal information. Facebook was the least trusted—82.9 percent of respondents answered "No" when asked if they trust it—followed by the federal government (76.8 percent), LinkedIn (67.1 percent) and Google (52.8 percent). Facebook users, said a MyLife spokesman, often feel "creeped out" by the thought of the social network giving their information away. That same year, a Pew study revealed that a whopping 81 percent of social media users felt insecure about how their information was being shared with third parties.

"What's happening in this category is that technology companies are finding themselves in an environment that's increasingly characterized by lack of clarity," Purewal said. "When you wake up every morning, it seems like you see another story on Google and the EU squaring off on privacy—or Facebook having a lack of clarity about what's being shared."

Setting aside consumer fears, Purewal pointed out that tech brands themselves have ample reason to be concerned about a widespread lack of trust.

"In a category where innovation is rampant and there are emerging and available substitutes, not to be trusted is a very ominous condition to be in," he said, pointing to examples like AOL and MySpace, both once-mighty Internet behemoths that were all too easily swept aside by newcomers. Purewal's point: A brand users don't trust to begin with will prompt few tears when it's replaced. Trust translates to loyalty, and loyalty is part of what keeps brands in business. "A brand like Facebook could have the fate of an AOL or a MySpace if they don't maintain the trust of users," Purewal said.

So why don't the Facebooks and Googles of the world just work harder on transparency? Because "transparency doesn't help them," said author and security technologist Bruce Schneier. "With most of these companies, you're not their customer—you are the product that they sell to their customers. So it's not surprising that there's a lack of trust." Brands like Facebook, Schneier pointed out, do not have a traditional customer-vendor relationship. Asking Google users if they trust Google, he said, "is like asking cows if they trust McDonald's."

Prophet's Brand Relevance Index bears Schneier's point out. Internet brands whose revenue actually comes from their online users—most notably Amazon, which ranked No. 7 overall—tended to score higher. In fact, four of the top five brands in Prophet's survey—Apple at No. 1, followed by Samsung, Microsoft, Netflix and Nike—happen to be tech brands. And while Apple may have some trust issues of its own, Purewal said these brands ranked high because "they promise and deliver on a value proposition. There's a lot that can be learned from these companies."

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.