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.


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24 Vibrant Comments

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  1. November 22, 2010

    Brandon Cox said:

    Are you saying I’m NOT the authority on kicking llamas in the neck? I’m #1 in Google for that – that should say something bro!

    Nicholas, I’ve enjoyed seeing your blog grow!

  2. November 22, 2010

    Ron Leyba said:

    I love the Wikipedia paragraph. I mean, what Neil Waters said is really true. But most of the people don’t know about it. They always think that if a certain information comes from Wikipedia, its the real thing. It is all because, some non techie person still don’t know that Wikipedia is such an open (can be edited by anyone at anytime they want) encyclopedia.

    • November 22, 2010

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      It’s true. However, I argue that we can still use Wikipedia as a resource for information as long as we click through to the original source if it’s cited at the bottom. Otherwise, I wouldn’t trust the information.

      If you read that entire article by Neil Waters, you’ll see that he had several students turn in a report with inaccurate information and they all had the same inaccuracy and they all cited Wikipedia.

      He makes the argument that if a subject is particularly popular then it will likely have more editors and therefore become more accurate. If a subject is less popular, it will have less contributors and likely be less accurate.

      • November 22, 2010

        Ron Leyba said:

        Thanks for pointing that (checking resources and citation of a Wikipedia page) out Nick.

  3. November 22, 2010

    Craig Carrigan said:

    And just the other day I was thinking about this irritating llama that keeps coming around, and how a good neck kick could probably abate his pestering. Yet I did not know where to find a knowledgeable person in that particular area. I will be giving you a call Brandon.

    Good article Nick. I’d never call myself an expert and in the past, in areas I was very literate, I didn’t necessarily like others doing it either. I think “expert” can actually have a bad connotation at times. I think a broad “expert” can sometimes be bad (he’s an expert as web design) but a more specific approach (he’s an expert iPhone app developer for games) can be more justified.

    • November 22, 2010

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      I agree, Craig. It carries a very bad connotation in my mind.

      I believe that there is a such thing as a ‘subject matter expert’ but I think that we often use that term as a marketing ploy to dupe people into consuming our material. As we write and produce content, it should be able to stand on it’s own as people see the legitimacy of it.

  4. November 22, 2010

    Murlu said:

    From a consumer stand-point, it’s always good to have a BS meter in anything that you look into – not just to be negative from the get-go but so you’ll be able to bring up those objections and mindset to do the additional research.

    From the creator point; you really have to just let your work speak for you – the ‘actions speak louder than words’ – let your content show your expertise, be modest and let people naturally gravitate to you rather than hyping everything.

    Unfortunately, those that do ‘fake it til they make it’ are often successful and discourage the people that are playing it ethically – but in the end; it’s the people that go for the long run are the ones that are truly successful – no cutting the corners.

    • November 22, 2010

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      In the end, it is much easier to fake it until you make it than it is to put in the necessary work to become the writer people want to read.

      The key is to put this into practice alongside of every other tactic you can employ. Be accurate and cite your sources, but still work to add humor, develop a site that’s easy to interact with, engage your audience, etc.

      Be the best at everything you can and you’ll see results that last.

  5. November 22, 2010

    Jason said:

    This is something I struggle with on a few of my projects. Especially the nature of 67D, which is more or less, a view into a journey in progress. But I think as long as progression is being conveyed, folks can’t deny the burgeoning authority.

    • November 22, 2010

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      I understand that but you’ll soon come to realize that ‘make money online’ blogs have flooded the internet and the vast majority of them are being authored by people who don’t make any money online. As a result, people don’t trust these blogs unless they see legitimate results.

  6. November 22, 2010

    Kimi said:

    I honestly think it is hard to trust something online.

    There are some contents that are worthy to trust, some are not.

    Especially with the “make money online” thingy, i don’t usually trust any tips LOL.

    I just found out yesterday, that we can fake subscriber numbers (feedburner feedcount) LOL.

    Funny, but amusing.

    • November 22, 2010

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      I don’t even know where to start on this comment.

      You’re right. That’s a good start.

      I know a guy who preaches about ‘living the internet lifestyle’ who actually lives with his mom.

      I know people who don’t actually make any money who are running ‘make money online’ blogs.

      We live in a ‘fake it ’till you make it’ society. People believe that if they can convince you that they know what they’re talking about that they’ll eventually get it.

  7. November 22, 2010

    Vadim Popoff said:

    Nicholas, I’m glad that somebody really speaking about it. It’s a huge topic in our days, days of fast internet, Wikipedia existence and “boom” of social networking. I consider myself as a big fan of Wikipedia, but at some point we all need to realize that negative info also leaking there, shaping our minds and focus of our lifes. Thanks again!

    • November 22, 2010

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      You’re welcome, Vadim. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Can you think of other examples of sites where you’ve found information that is less than trustworthy?

  8. November 22, 2010

    Gabriele Maidecchi said:

    Credibility is such a urging problem in today’s world. Journalists over here in Italy are literally making fools of themselves each day that passes, especially for their trigger-happy attitude of not verifying sources whatsoever, and letting everyone come up with 2-3 versions of the same story nobody really bothers to confirm as true or not.
    I personally consider it mandatory to cite the source, even if just a link, when citing some news or information. Otherwise, if I can’t recall the source or link or I just can’t find it, I prefer to omit the information at all.
    There’s nothing worse than instilling the doubt in the mind of people, the doubt that what you say might be bullshit.

  9. November 23, 2010

    Carolee Sperry said:

    If I’m writing about a subject I try to find at least 3 sources that have the same info…and if possible one of those would be the site itself…

    If I’m writing about Blogger, I would go to their blog and verify any information.

    Guilty on the “I’m not an expert” talk!

    I know I’m not an expert, but I don’t have to yell it from the rooftops….nor do I have to scream out that I AM an expert…

    I should just shut up and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I know MORE than 50% of the people out there, and LESS than 50% of the people out there-approximately…

    I’m sure you get my drift….

  10. November 23, 2010

    Ana @ Blog Traffic said:

    Don’t call yourself an expert…

    There’s a challenge to a lot of online marketers!

    Education is the key to a successful blog. You don’t have to call yourself an expert or think of yourself as one, but you’d better know and PRACTICE what you are writing about.

    Lots of food for thought, Nicholas; thanks for the challenge.

    Ana Hoffman

  11. November 24, 2010

    Andy @ FirstFound said:

    It’s the same as analysing a historical document – Authority and Bias are the two main things to look at. If it’s authoratitive and without bias, it’s probably valid.

  12. December 21, 2010

    Eman Cruz said:

    To prove something to be invalid it should contain all five of those. But, I think it would be unfair to categorize an information as invalid just because it is written by someone who hasn’t built authority yet 🙁

    However currency, objective, accuracy, and coverage are good signs of an invalid information.

  13. January 20, 2011

    Heidi said:

    I fully agree with you however, as a newbie I had no idea that I was following the advice of a less than credible source. Thus I have a blog in the work from home niche! I also have a successful offline business and have learned that the more we learn about any topic the more disconnected we become with the new person who knows nothing. I prefer to keep my blog to help steer newbies towards quality lessons such as the ones I have found here. The easier it is for newbies to find quality blogs the better, in my opinion.
    Thanks for the post it has helped me a lot and I will pass it on.

    • January 20, 2011

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      I’m glad it’s helpful for you, Heidi. It’s hard to make anything happen in that niche just because there are so many in that niche who aren’t actually making any money online. If you want to stand out from the crowd, then you need to figure out how to make it big and how to present that information so others can as well.