TrustPlus Out to Build Its Rep with eBay Data
Trust is a funny thing. I first interviewed Shawn Broderick, founder and CEO of TrustPlus, last September. But I didn’t write a story about the startup, mainly because there was something about the interview that didn’t feel right. Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions. Maybe it was the way TrustPlus’s marketing video was such a blatant remake of Michael Wesch’s famous Web 2.0 video The Machine is Us/ing Us. For whatever reason, I didn’t put much stock in Broderick’s business plan—which, ironically, is to provide a central aggregation point for the reputation data that millions of Internet users are accumulating in various places around the Web, such as auction and dating sites.
So I didn’t blog the interview. But I kept an eye on TrustPlus. Later I met Broderick in person at a party, and watched as news of the company popped up here and there. So by the time Broderick dropped me another note last week, I had more to go on. In other words, TrustPlus had developed more of a reputation—at least within my own limited sphere of awareness. And I finally felt ready to do another interview, which led to a real piece this time.
All of which may be a case in point for the Waltham, MA, company’s business. If we had better ways of evaluating each other’s trustworthiness, Broderick argues, it would smooth out many types of interactions, from online purchases to taking out loans to arranging blind dates. “We’ve built an infrastructure that we aim to leverage as the ‘reputation layer’ for the Internet, so that when people are chatting, buying, selling, or whatever, there’s a way for them to see each other’s reputations,” Broderick explains. The idea is sensible enough: if you don’t know or trust someone you’ve come across on the Net, but you know they’re trusted by someone you do know and trust—in this case, the community of TrustPlus users—you’re more likely to feel comfortable doing business with them.
It works roughly like this: If you sign up for a TrustPlus account, you can start building up a reputation, which will be based at first simply on whether you have a verifiable e-mail address, but will grow richer and more reliable as other TrustPlus members rate you. (Everyone is rated on a six-point scale from “Do Not Trust” to “Most Trustworthy.”) If you download the TrustPlus browser plugin, then view the personal profiles of other TrustPlus members at popular sites such as MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Facebook, eBay, Craigslist, those members’ TrustPlus ratings will be superimposed on their profiles, and you can rate them yourself.
You can also invite other people you know to join you in a “TrustCircle,” where everyone promises to notify one another about whom to trust and whom to avoid. And there are other benefits to the system: if you have a TrustPlus account and you post an ad to Craigslist or other online classified-ad sites such as Backpage.com, for example, a badge displaying your TrustPlus rating will appear alongside every ad you post on the sites. You’ll also be able to see reputation information for people who respond to your ad, assuming they’re also signed up for TrustPlus.
It’s all free at the moment, though TrustPlus plans to make money eventually by charging for certain premium services. For example, Broderick says the company is working with a large dating network to integrate TrustPlus ratings into its website; for an extra fee (part of which would go to TrustPlus), members could opt to have their ratings displayed as part of their personal profiles, presumably increasing the comfort level of prospective dates. Members with good reputations would also appear higher in search results. And members who don’t tell the truth in their profiles—about whether they’re actually single, for example—could be made to pay the price, as their disgusted dates bring down their ratings. “Right now we’re just rolling with the punches and seeing what makes the most sense” as a premium service, says Broderick.
TrustPlus itself benefited last week from an endorsement of sorts. The company announced a partnership with SageFire, a Boulder, CO, startup that provides various services for power sellers on eBay. SageFire is among a very small group of companies certified as eBay Solution Providers, meaning the company has access to—and is allowed by eBay to repurpose—data on individual eBay users, including their feedback scores.
Because they are the oldest, deepest, and most widely understood form of reputation data on the entire Web, eBay feedback scores are the gold bullion of the reputation world. Many previous reputation-aggregation efforts have attempted to exploit them, often by lifting the scores directly from the eBay website using automated screen-scraping software. But such efforts invariably run afoul of eBay itself, which jealously guards the data. Now that TrustPlus has legitimate access to the data through SageFire, TrustPlus members can opt to add their eBay scores to their TrustPlus profiles, allowing them to leverage the reputation they’ve built up on eBay anywhere on the Web—for example, when they’re selling something through a classified ad on Craigslist.
“We are the first reputation company, as far as any of us know, that has ever been able to get legal access to this sort of information from eBay, whether directly or through a partner,” says Broderick. “We’re very excited about that, and we think it’s a really good thing for everybody involved—for eBay, ourselves, and consumers.”
If eBay trusts SageFire and SageFire trusts TrustPlus, then I guess I can trust TrustPlus. You’ll have to decide whether to trust me on that.