While it seems like trust in the web is at an all time low, now is a great time to get to understand the elements of a trustworthy and credible website. After all, learning how to spot credible sources online is one prerequisite to becoming a credible (and perhaps even sought-after) expert in your own right.
With online scams, identity theft and data breaches on the rise, web users are more wary than ever. And we should also be equally skeptical about the type of content we consume whenever we log on. According to a Pew Research study, more than a billion people are likely to join those already using the Internet by 2026. And Internet usage will no doubt spike this year due to the 2020 elections and the ongoing popularity of e-commerce and e-learning. While this all leads to a wonderful boom in commerce, idea-exchanges and innovation, it can also lead to “more criminal exploits and … institutional incursions impacting more people, thus less trust.”
Whether you are researching your industry for your next thought leadership article or engaging in any new type of online activity (be it donating to a cause or joining a social network), it is critical to get in-tune with the rules of reliability.
Here are some things to keep in mind.
1) Double check the URL and domain name.
Before you even click on a website--be it on a search engine’s results page or an e-mail--read the URL. Make sure the website represents a trusted organization or institution like a government agency, nonprofit, foundation or university. Such sites may include those run by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, foundations, or colleges and universities.
If you plan to enter personal information, like your credit card or social security number, check that the website offers a secure connection. You can do this by making sure the link begins with https://. That extra “s” before the colon means the website relies on a secure connection that is more protected from hackers than the usual http://.
2) Trust seals and Secure Connections
As marketing company Omniconvert explains: “A trust badge or trust seal is a symbol placed on your website that ensures your visitors that the page is legitimate and that all their data is collected through secure third-party service providers. The trust seal company that agrees to place their badge on your website confirms that your business is authentic, therefore users know that all processes taking place on your website are safe and secure.”
Back in 2011 ActualInsights.com conducted a survey revealing that customers trusted websites with safety badges from web companies like MacAfee and the Better Business Bureau. Nowadays, there are newer badges like Google Trusted Store and Shopify, that are also credible sources. When in doubt, you can contact the issuing organization to see if that site is registered with them.
3) Check the site, check your gut.
Once you start browsing the website, do another round of vetting before you cite, share or purchase from the website. You can get a sense of credibility the second you land on the homepage. If it looks wonky and clunky in design, this could be a red flag.
But anyone can hire a professional web designer and churn out content. That’s why you have to be discerning of the quality of content. The proof is in the proofreading. If you’re spotting typos, grammatical errors and even inconsistent spacing between words and paragraphs, you might want to steer clear and off of the website altogether.
4) Who’s the author?
Who is the individual writing the content? There’s a three-step process in confirming someone’s expertise.
i) Read the bio page. First, there should be a page highlighting who the author or team is behind the website, listing their credentials.
ii) Look for specifics. Anyone can claim they are a “world-renowned expert” so check the bio for fluff. In other words, look for specifics. “Evan Must is a serial entrepreneur, as well as an investor and owner of a diversified portfolio of innovative digital companies. He’s a consultant and well-regarded expert in the field of technology.”
The abundance of vague terms paired with a lack of specifics here should raise a red flag. Which companies did he start? What makes him an expert? Does the biography link to these real and existing companies or publications?
Again, look for concrete and precise details that speak to a person’s credibility: “Elon Musk is the co-founder and CEO at Tesla. Elon is also the co-founder, CEO and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). Previously, Elon co-founded and sold PayPal, the world's leading Internet payment system, and Zip2, one of the first internet maps and directions services, which helped bring major publishers like the New York Times and Hearst online…”
Here’s another example of a credible bio, and therefore a credible source: “Tara Shirazian is an ob/gyn. She is a practicing gynecologic surgeon and an Assistant Professor at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. Tara is recognized as an international leader in global women’s health and a frequently cited expert in this field. She is also an accomplished researcher focused on interventions designed to decrease maternal morbidity and mortality, with work published in such prominent medical journals as the American Journal of Perinatology and ACOG Today.
iii) Run a quick cross-reference, especially if you’ve never heard of your expert author before. A quick Google of “Dr. Tara Shirazian” and “NYU Langone Medical Center” confirms that she is indeed an instructor at the renowned university and an expert in the field of women’s reproductive health. Always ask yourself if you can trust the author and his or her expertise.
5) Read reviews.
Speaking of Google, consumers shopping the web can perform a quick search to confirm whether a business is trustworthy. If you Google the business name, and add “reviews” or “customer reviews” you’ll likely get some feedback on the legitimacy of the brand as well as the quality of its product or service.
6) Screen for bias.
As you can see, determining credibility on the web requires the same set of skills of a professional journalist or researcher. It involves fact-checking and questioning the information that lands on your desktop.
If you’re searching for information about politics and policies, ask yourself whether the organization behind the website has political affiliations or agendas. Opt for non-partisan sites with objective content and authors.
Also, informational data from major corporations should also be met with skepticism. While you may trust a business for a specific product, you might think twice before trusting their company data. For example, if a major sneaker company publishes a clinical study about the link between health and power-walking, don’t be surprised if their research entices you to buy their latest kicks. In this case, you’re better off trusting facts and figures from a study conducted by the American Podiatric Medical Association.
7) Balance, Stats and Attribution. As mentioned, anyone can claim they’re an expert. That’s because anyone can publish statistics online and claim them as facts.
But only a well-informed, reliable source will know to cite--as well as link to--the original source from which that statistic was published. They’ll also know not to pull outdated information.
Once you know the original source you can check the original study for key things like who wrote the study (an intern or research scholar?), when was the study conducted (2019 or 1997?), the purpose of the study (why was the study conducted?), and its methodology (did they survey 100 people or 1,000?).
Let’s break down a good example of credible sourcing. Steve Lohr, reporter for the New York Times, recently published an article titled New Yorkers Face a Training Gap for Tech Jobs, but a Study Finds Hope. The headline alone shows balance instead of bias, as there is no praising or blaming of any party or company. The reporter attributes his facts to a study conducted by a credible source, The Center for An Urban Future, an independent and nonpartisan organization, as opposed to a for-profit entity with an agenda. He also directly links to the original study .
In journalism school, rookie reporters are often taught to attribute, attribute, attribute. Look for websites that properly cite and link to sources that are credible, recent and relevant. This will professionalize your published works and elevate your expertise. Meanwhile, sharing false information or heavily biased news might harm your own online reputation. It’s your job to protect it.