As what looks like part of a larger plan to bolster the clout of its online shopping options, Google has announced that it's opening a program called Trusted Stores to all US merchants. Trusted Stores is a verification system that's meant to make customers more comfortable shopping online. In testing until now, the program independently monitors a seller's shipping and service record for at least a month and issues a report card. If the store scores high enough, it's marked as "trusted," and a badge goes on both its Google Shopping results and any ads it places with Google. On the user side, Google will offer a dedicated service team and up to $1,000 of lifetime purchase protection to anyone who buys something from one of these stores.

Although Trusted Stores badges are integrated into Google's advertising service, the service is free for both customers and merchants, and sellers aren't required to work with AdWords or AdSense. That's because Google expects an uptick in how many people buy through its service and how much they buy, something that's good for both it and sellers. Over the nine-month trial period, Google Shopping Group Project Manager Tom Fallows told us he saw marked growth in sales for stores using the program. The sites we saw data for (which we're guessing are at the upper end of this increase) had up to a 3.1 percent growth in conversion rate (people looking vs. people buying) and up to a 5.5 percent growth in order size.

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For customers, this basically falls into the "providing better information" category of changes, distinct from the somewhat controversial planned move to paid listings for Shopping. During certification, merchants send Google tracking numbers for every product they ship and allow Google to check customer service complaints, making this potentially much more reliable than eBay-style voluntary customer feedback if it's updated periodically. If you opt into the free product protection, you can also have Google work with merchants on your behalf. Badges should appear for some people today, and stores can start applying to join here. For now, only sellers in the US can participate, but Fallows says Google will consider expanding if the project is a success.