The Litmus Test for Assessing Online Credibility
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Not every piece of material published online can be trusted. In fact, most can’t. Much of the content that you find strewn across the web will probably fail any serious litmus test that you might apply to determine its validity. Anyone with a little bit of time on their hands can publish false information to the internet on a homemade website, a blog or even on mainstream websites like Wikipedia. For example, consider Neil Waters review of Wikipedia’s authority as a credible information source.
It is clear to me that the good stuff is related to the bad stuff. Wikipedia owes its incredible growth to open-source editing, which is also the root of its greatest weakness. Dedicated and knowledgeable editors can and do effectively reverse the process of entropy…Other editors, through ignorance, sloppy research, or, on occasion, malice or zeal, can and do introduce or perpetuate errors… The reader never knows whether the last editor was one of this latter group.
Taken from Why You Can’t Cite Wikipedia in My Class by Neil L. Waters
Five Criteria for Validating Online Information
As you read, research and dig through material that you find online, it’s important to question what you find. Just because someone who you highly respect is teaching something that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily true. You should test everything that you hear against these five criteria.
- Authority: Who wrote the material on the website and what makes them an authority on the subject?
- Accuracy: What evidence does the author provide to verify his information? Do they provide links to their sources?
- Objectivity: Is the author biased toward the subject? Is a car salesman trying to convince you of your need for a new car or a social media manager working you up about the importance of social media for your business?
- Currency: Is the information that we find current and up-to-date? When was it published? Have new finding invalidated this information?
- Coverage: Does the information fully cover the material or is it biased toward an opinion? If the information covers an issue, does it present both sides fairly?
The Litmus Test: How do you Measure Up?
Although it’s incredibly important to test all the information that you view against this litmus test, it’s equally important to note that readers who find your blog or website will naturally be sifting through your content with similar questions. With this in mind, you should constantly be asking yourself how you measure up against these standards and what you can do to improve your standing in each one.
Questions to Ponder: Are you an authority on the subject you’re discussing? Is your information accurate and verifiable? Are you being objective or are you throwing around excessive opinions? Is your information current? Are you fully covering the issues?
Myth: If I’m honest…I don’t need to be an expert.
People often justify their lack of expertise by making it clear that they’re being fully honest with their readers. In other words, some people will say that they’re still just learning, they’re not an expert, but they’re ensuring that they reveal that to their readers as they put together their content.
Ethically this is absolutely the right thing to do because it allows people to make a decision as to whether or not to take in your material based on one of the criteria mentioned above but from a business perspective it’s definitely the wrong thing to do because those who are serious about learning aren’t going to waste their time reading the work of amateurs. Instead they’re going to read articles from the smartest and most experienced people they can find and they’re not going to be revisiting your website any time soon.
Instead of justifying poor content with your lack of knowledge, get the knowledge. Dig in and start reading the experts. Read books. Watch tutorials. Go to school. Research. Study. Do everything that you can to fill your mind with the knowledge necessary to become an expert in your field. It doesn’t matter if your site is about writing, parenting, coding, design or underwater basket weaving. Learn your area of study inside and out.
It’s also important to note that you can build up your expertise in stages. An aspiring auto mechanic who knows nothing more than how to change the oil shouldn’t be writing about how to replace the alternator. Instead, that author should only write about changing oil. After having successfully learned about and replaced alternators then he can move onto that subject.
Don’t feign expertise.
Special Note: Regardless of your level of knowledge, don’t ever call yourself an expert. It’s egotistical and it comes off as offensive. Instead of using that label, simply develop your mind and your experience to the point that you are able to approach your niche with confidence. Others will notice and they’ll do the labeling for you.