Before You Share: Identifying Credible Content Online

Throughout our school careers, we are taught how to identify credible sources both online and off when writing essays and other papers. As professionals, we are still expected to know how to identify credible content online before using it as a source or sharing it on our social media.

By knowing how to identify credible sources before using them, your business will be responsible and have an improved reputation—especially if you are using that information in your content marketing.

How Do You Identify Credible Content Anyway?

Identifying credible content can be a bit tricky, what with sensational headlines, confirmation bias, and a plethora of other factors. It can be easy to get caught up in the cycle and share or like things that are less than credible, especially on social media platforms on Facebook, where they’ve faced pressure regarding the rapid spread of fake and dishonest content but it’s not impossible.

So when it comes to writing content for your site or sharing an article with your followers, how do you know that the sources you are linking to are credible?

To help you in your search, The Trust Protocol by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics was designed to provide editorial guidelines for researchers, the average reader, and content developers and social media managers like us to help identify credible content:

Review the Sources

One of the first criteria you should look at to determine if a piece of content is credible is to identify its source. Is the content you want to share a primary source or a secondary source? This is how you find out where the content comes from and who created it:

  • Primary sources are firsthand accounts or the results of experiments and studies. These tend to be factual and include:
    • Journals, letters, newspaper or magazine articles from the time period, photographs, maps, songs, plays.
  • Secondary sources are interpretations of and analyses of primary sources.
    • Biographies, books reviews, analyses of articles

If you are getting your information from a website (and let’s face it, you probably are), then the URL is also a good indicator if a site is good. For example, .edu and .gov sites are typically credible, as they are often fact checked by professional staff. But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security! Even if it comes from a reputable university or government source, always double check the information for accuracy. You should also check links within the article to make sure that the links they provide are credible as well.

It’s important to keep in mind that while the publisher may be credible it doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is, as some publishers don’t always take responsibility for the content displayed.

Identify the Author

Next, you should determine who the author or authors of the content is. Is their experienced listed? Are they qualified to write on the given topic? Who are they associated with? What, if any, other works have they produced?

For example, if you specialize in outdoor toys for children, you aren’t going to write about choosing the best vehicle to haul lumber with. Authors should have a profile and past works that are easily found so you can understand their history. If none of the above are available, tread carefully.

Identify the Publisher

Who published the content and are they known for being credible? For example, The Onion is a well-known satire site that many people still confuse as real. So be sure to review a site’s About Us page to learn about who they are.

The publisher should preferably have a statements and information about their:

  • Ethics Policy
  • Corrections Policy and Practice
  • Mission Statement
  • Ownership Structure, Funding, and Grants
  • Fact-Checking Standards

You should also find the publisher’s contact information. This information should be correct and up-to-date in order for the public to report corrections to articles and contact them for any other reason.

Determine the Timeliness of the Content

When was the content created? With information ever-changing and updating, it is critical that the source of your information be up-to-date. The exception to this rule is if the source is from a specific time period you are researching.

For example, if I were to write about the history of SEO and came across an article from 2000, I could potentially use that as an example to show how much SEO has changed in the last 18 years. (Remember: We no longer stuff keywords or use hidden links!)

A good source will also have an indication of when it was last updated with either corrections or updated information. If changes have been made, make sure that a list of those changes is available.

Review Any Sponsorships & Objectivity

Who, if anyone, sponsored the content? This will give you an indication on whether or not the content was influenced by an outside party. For example, remember the fiasco that was the Fyre Festival? That set a precedent on what not to do when working with “influencers.” Models like Bella Hadid and others were used in promotional videos and pictures for the event, but few disclosed the fact that they were paid for it (a big no-no).

If a piece of content is sponsored, ask yourself who the intended audience is and what the goal of the content is. Is it meant to educate, persuade, or sell a product or service and if so, is the information presented factual? Content that is paid for should have a disclaimer stating who sponsored the content, if the author received the product for free to review, et cetera.

Look at the Design

What does the content source look like? If it comes from a website that looks like it was created in the 1990s, it may be best to steer clear of it. (Fun fact: Several websites from the 1990s are still live.) The exception to this rule is if it is an archive page, book, article, or other primary source from the time frame you are researching.

However, don’t let a professional design fool you. Even the most professional looking of sites can be fake. For example, in 2017 after it was discovered that Equifax was hacked and more than 140 million Americans’ personal information was exposed, Equifax tweeted out links to a scam site instead of their own three times.

Thankfully, the scam site was created by a software engineer who wanted to show how easy it is to duplicate a site and nothing was done with information that users submitted (users got the following headline: “Cybersecurity Incident & Important Consumer Information Which is Totally Fake, Why Did Equifax Use A Domain That’s So Easily Impersonated By Phishing Sites?”) On the other hand, Equifax’s legitimate site was so unprofessional looking many people didn’t know if it was real or not.

So when keeping design in mind, know that nothing is set in stone and you should double check all information provided, including the URL, to be sure it is a legitimate site.

With these tools in hand, you can navigate through the web and other sources for your research and social media to identify credible content and information that you can bring to your audience with confidence.

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