I like to think I have a good reputation. Someone who works hard, knows what he's doing, creates helpful products, and is trustworthy. So when I started a company, I figured those virtues would apply to my venture, Iodine.com. If I was credible, so was my startup.

That was true, to a point. In our early days of recruiting and fundraising, for people who knew me, yes, my reputation counted. But once we launched, it didn't matter a hoot. People on the internet didn't know me; they had merely stumbled onto some website about medicine. And, as nice as the site looked, it didn't do a very good job of explaining why it should be trusted.

In short, we lacked what Google calls EAT: expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. EAT, which has applications for every business, has been a buzzword since 2013, when Google first released its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. That was a document meant to instruct Google's team of third-party website raters on the ideal elements of a worthy website.

More EAT equals better quality equals higher page rank. With thousands of sites competing for the top 10 spots on the first page of Google results, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness are reasonable benchmarks for quality. After all, the Google gods are merely surrogates for the user, who's searching for the best info in the shortest possible time.

The better the search result, the more satisfied the user. But even if you don't compete on Google, any new company--which by definition has no prior reputation and few apparent virtues--should be overtly, exhaustively, and excessively promoting its inherent expertise, authoritativeness, and trust­worthiness.

To win a customer, to sell your product--to succeed--you need to convince a skeptical audience that your outfit is legit. That it has expertise--meaning you know what you're doing. That it is authoritative--meaning others recognize you as credible. And that it is worthy of trust--meaning it is dependable and sticks to accepted standards and protocols for security, accuracy, and reliability. Note that trust signals from third parties are not the same as trustworthiness.

You can plaster  TechCrunch and Better Business Bureau logos all over your site, but their marks alone don't assure potential partners or customers that they can trust your brand with their data, their privacy, their quarterly deliverables. So how does your company show its EAT? First, nail down your core promise: What should customers expect from your product? (For The New York Times, the promise is truth; for Whole Foods, it's quality; for Amazon, it's convenience.)

That promise must be backed up in every product, exchange, and communication. Make sure your employees know the promise, and honor it with every opportunity. That shows EAT better than marketing material or website badges. In other words, earn your EAT. This means more than checking the boxes.

These are virtues that need to be demonstrated, and proved, in whatever venue your company might be judged. Really, EAT represents traits that any prospective business partners or customers are looking for, before they're willing to put their money and their reputation on the line and do business with you. A startup must work extra hard to demonstrate these virtues, since it is, by definition, fresh to the game. In the case of Iodine, we thought a self-effacing About page would suffice. We were wrong. We soon heard that, despite our personal reputations, there were questions about whether our company was, um, real. So we added more facts and figures and bona fides to our website to bolster our EAT. And then, a few months later, we went back and added more, and we did this again and again.

Which is the takeaway for all startups, whether you compete on Google search or not. After all, search results are just a marketplace, albeit a fiercely competitive and massively engineered one. If you aren't competing for page 1, you're surely competing in some other marketplace where these same signals are in play. In other words: Heed your EAT--or be eaten.

From the November 2019 Issue of Inc. Magazine