Trust Seals: From Medieval Kings to Ecommerce Conversions

Image of Scott Baradell
Scott Baradell
Published: Aug 19, 2021
Last Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Signed, sealed and delivered. 

Seal of approval. 

Sealed their fate. 

Seal the deal. 

Sealed with a kiss. 

My lips are sealed. 

These popular idioms derive from a common origin: the design stamped on wax known as a “seal” in English usage beginning in the Middle Ages. 

When you consider the wax seal today, you may think of decorative attachments to wedding invitations or special gifts. But the wax seal has borne far greater responsibility over the course of its fascinating 1,000+-year history. 

Wax seals have lessons to teach about trust, the importance of its tangible symbols, and their enduring role in business and in life.

In fact, there is direct throughline from the sealed writs of Medieval kings to the “trust seals” that began appearing on ecommerce websites in the late 1990s—and that are a pervasive online presence today.

King John’s Lasting Contribution to Trust

In the thousand-year history of the British monarchy there is only one King John, who ruled from 1199 to 1216. His name was damned for future kings mostly because of his domineering mother and the posthumous accounts of his reign, written by his enemies, that portrayed him as weak.

But one contribution of King John has endured—the impression of his seal in beeswax to affirm one of the most important documents in Western history, the Magna Carta.

magna carta trust seal

In the Middle Ages, wax seals came into common use among royals, bishops, and government officials to authenticate official documents. By the latter part of the 13th century, all levels of European society—from patricians to peasants—were using seals, both for business purposes and personal messages.

The earliest wax seals were uncolored. Later the wax was colored red with vermilion, particularly for formal or business correspondence.

Over time, wax seals came to forge powerful associations with many aspects of trust, including privacy, security, legitimacy, endorsement and status.

Let's take a look at each of these five trust signals delivered by the wax seal:

  1. Privacy. When an envelope was delivered with a wax seal, whether with a message of business or romance, it was meant for the recipient's eyes only. 
  2. Security. In addition to communicating that a message was private, the wax seal also served as a practical means of security, indicating the missive had not been seen by others. A broken seal meant broken trust.
  3. Legitimacy. Legitimacy is validity as determined by the government or other authorizing organization. Wax seals stamped by such organizations established legitimacy.
  4. Endorsement. A step above legitimacy is endorsement, when a seal explicitly conveys approval or support. King John's seal on the Magna Carta established his endorsement of the agreement.
  5. Status. Powerful people typically pressed wax seals with a specially made signet ring, a symbol of status. High-ranking members of the church or government might require a visitor to kiss their signet to show their allegiance. When the signet's owner died, the ring would be destroyed to prevent forgeries.

wax sealFast Forward to Trust Seals

Fast forward to the present day and you’ll find the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the internet age, “trust seals”—a direct descendent of the wax seal in etymology as well as meaning— have come to fill a key role in establishing trust in online commerce.

The first trust seals for ecommerce (also known as “trust badges” or “trustmarks”) were referenced in an academic article published in the March 2000 edition of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications titled “The Role of Intermediaries in the Development of Trust on the WWW: The Use and Prominence of Trusted Third Parties and Privacy Statements.”

The article reads:

Developing trust between suppliers and consumers is critical for the continued growth of Internet commerce. This article presents an empirical investigation into how firms promote trust by exploring the use and prominence of Trusted Third Parties (TTPs) and privacy statements … By using TTPs and privacy statements, Internet retailers can help assuage some of consumers' concerns about the Internet.

The TTPs were represented by seals from organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and TRUSTe, which reassured consumers at a time when many were skeptical of submitting their credit card information and other personal details online.

The use and variety of trust seals on the web have expanded dramatically over the past two decades. In addition to Better Business Bureau seal, we have dozens of other providers across multiple categories of trust, including all of those traditionally represented by wax seals. These include TrustedSite, TrustLock, TrustPulse, TrustArc and others.

Trust Seals Today

A trust seal is any emblem, badge, symbol or icon intended to quickly establish trust with prospective customers and other audiences online. It's a shorthand way to communicate credibility to those who visit your website or come across your brand on social media.

For ecommerce businesses, research shows that trust seals can cut cart abandonment in half. And such badges aren't just for online merchants these days; any brand can benefit from the instant social proof that trust seals can provide.

wax trust seal

Trust seals come in two primary categories:

  1. Transaction seals that reassure online shoppers with promises of transaction security, money-back guarantees and more; and
  2. Endorsement seals that provide third-party validation, ranging from a BBB seal to professional certifications and the logos of well-known customers.

Let’s take a closer look at examples of each type:

Transaction Trust Seals

In ecommerce, transaction-oriented trust seals are most visible during the checkout process, but many sites today use them on their homepage, product pages and About Us pages as well.

These seals include:

  • Security trust seals. A “safe checkout” badge indicates that an ecommerce site’s checkout process is secure and customer information protected. TrustArc's TRUSTe seal validates that your site protects visitor privacy. 
  • Payment trust seals. Consumers are more likely to trust your ecommerce website if you accept forms of payment such as Visa, Mastercard and American Express. 
  • Guarantee trust seals. Adding a “30-Day Money-Back Guarantee” seal to your site can increase sales by reducing your customer’s perceived risk. Standing by your product also communicates your belief in the product’s quality. 
  • Shipping trust seals. Offering free shipping and returns is another way to earn trust and can reduce shopping cart abandonment.

Endorsement Trust Seals

People trust what other people say about you more than what you say about yourself. Endorsement trust seals are a powerful visual shortcut to quickly convey brand credibility and authority.

Top 3 in Charts Best of the Best - Stamp on Red Wax Seal Isolated on White. Business Concept. 3D Render.

These seals include:

  • Customer logos. For B2B companies, one of the most influential trust seals is a customer logo to show the well-known companies that have purchased your product.
  • Employee certifications. Add certification seals to employee bios to convey credibility to prospects.
  • "As Seen On" seals. These showcase media sources where your business has been mentioned. It allows your brand to borrow the credibility of the media outlet that saw fit to feature you.
  • Partnership and co-branded logos. Seals that highlight your status as an official partner of high-authority brands like Microsoft or Oracle confer credibility on your business.
  • Business and industry awards. Display business award seals to demonstrate to users that your company or product is an industry standout. 
  • Better Business Bureau seal. Adding a Better Business Bureau accreditation to your site remains a powerful endorsement.  

Privacy, security, legitimacy, endorsement and status. From the Middle Ages to today, trust seals quickly convey these dimensions of trust to your target audiences.

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