Credible sources are reliable, factual references that help you prove a point or back up a claim in your content. Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to find information on any topic you can dream up. But everything you see in search results isn’t always accurate. If you want your audience to trust you, and consider your brand a thought leader or quality content resource, you have to put in the effort to find credible sources to cite in your content. Today, we’re discussing how you can find and analyze sources to determine their credibility with topics like:
The credibility and reliability of any source always depend on its context. In research, context means looking at where your information came from, who the source created it for, and how you intend to use it for your brand. You don’t have to use all peer-reviewed, highly academic sources in your content to make it trustworthy. But you need to make sure the original source has the knowledge and authority to speak on a topic before you share that information with your own audience. These factors help determine if a source is credible for your audience:
There are three broad classes of resources you encounter during research:
Primary sources are often always the most accurate and credible. They share information about an event as it actually happened, from people who experienced it. For example, it’s always best to cite the primary source of a research or data study because the write-up and analysis come from researchers and strategists who ran the project.
Secondary sources may be less credible because they leave room for author analysis and interpretation. For example, a secondary organization could take the data from that same study and analyze it differently. That source’s commentary may not be as accurate as the original because those researchers didn’t take part in the project. Secondary sources, though, have more credibility when primary sources on the topic don’t exist.
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The authority of a source refers to the author or publisher. Analyzing the authority can tell you who wrote or originally shared the information and if you can believe what they say. Putting your trust in a source often requires looking into the person or organization’s background to see what they know. Subject matter experts and thought-leader brands are often the most authoritative sources on a topic. These are the people and organizations that have first-hand experience doing what they’re writing about rather than just talking about it.
Since most research in the digital age takes place online, it’s also important to be able to tell the authority of a website to know if the information is credible. Web domains that end in .gov and .edu are usually credible sources. They provide information from a government agency or an academic institution. Be more cautious when reviewing content from websites with URLs that end in .com and .net. These sources may be credible, but you can’t tell by the URL alone and have to rely on other factors to decide if the information you find there is worth sharing.
Currency relates to how up-to-date a source is. You might think the newer the information is the more credible it is, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes sources are less concerned with putting out the right information and instead care more about being the first to break a story. In contrast, information that’s over a year old, such as data studies, could already be outdated. The goal is to find balance and use the time of publication as just one factor in deciding if a source is credible. As a good rule, most content that’s between a week and one year old is often credible if it also passes other factor checks.
Depth refers to how well the source covers a topic. A light overview usually isn’t enough information to make a source credible. Details, research studies, quotes, facts, and statistics help provide more depth to a topic. The more in-depth a piece of content is, the more research went into creating it. Quality research is a hallmark of a credible source.
Objectivity refers to the slant or angle of a piece of content. Persuasive opinion content is often less credible than factual objective content. Opinions don’t have to have a root in fact. They’re thoughts, beliefs, and ideals that don’t require any proof. While you may use a source’s opinion to make counterpoints in your own content, that doesn’t make the sources credible. Sources that cover an objective view on all sides of a topic are more trustworthy than opinion-based content.
The purpose is why the author or publisher created the source in the first place. Did they want to persuade their audience to do something? Are they trying to inform people about a topic? You can find the purpose of any source by looking at the implied audience and the tone of a piece. Informational content often includes definitions and a tone that speaks on a basic level. Persuasive content typically includes multiple points and counterpoints and its tone may make the writer or publisher sound superior to those who share a different viewpoint.
The content type can help you decide if a source is trustworthy or not. But it’s important to remember that the method someone uses to share information isn’t as important as the person or publisher behind it. For example, social media posts are often less credible than research studies.
But if a company like HubSpot shares a Tweet about their latest content marketing study, that could be a credible source because the publisher has the authority to speak on the topic. However, you might not want to cite the HubSpot Tweet in your content if you could link to a report from the data study instead. Use content type as a factor when trying to decide which format of the same information is most credible for your audience.
As we said before, credibility comes down to context. Sometimes one source appears more credible when the others around it are low quality. It’s important to always choose the most credible source out of the available options. For example, let’s say you need a statistic about the social media habits of marketers for a piece of content, but when you research, you find that all the studies are over 10 years old.
Likely, all of this content is outdated, but you need statistics to prove a point. In this case, you have to compare the data sources to one another, rather than against your standard of what’s “credible.” The source you choose may not be the best authority on the topic, but it’s the best choice out of all the resources available to you.
Here are a few checklist methods that help you analyze the factors above to determine the credibility of your sources:
The CRAAP test is one method to tell whether a source is credible, or if it really is crap and not worth using. It stands for:
You may already be familiar with SMART goals for your marketing and business plans. The SMART check is slightly different because the acronym stands for different words in this case:
Though most commonly used for writing to make sure you cover all the key points of a topic, you can use the 5Ws and one H questions to determine if a source has credibility. These questions include:
If you’re still unsure if a source is credible enough to use in your content, you can always ask someone else’s opinion. Credibility is relative and does sometimes come down to a judgment call or intuition. Consider asking other members of your team or a research expert if they find a source credible. These colleagues may also have other channels or resources to share even more credible sources that you didn’t know existed.
To your audience, your brand is only as trustworthy as the information and content you share. Creating informational content without reliable facts, statistics, and data to back it up doesn’t give your audience a reason to trust you. Actually, this approach discredits your content and diminishes the influence and impact you could have on the path to becoming a thought leader in your industry. Nobody that encounters your brand for the first time is automatically going to trust it. You have to earn people’s loyalty through proof, and that starts with providing fact-checked, quality sources throughout your content.
Though you should run one of the credible source checks on every piece of content you encounter in your research, here are a few options that almost always pass the test:
Some sources have an inherent lack of credibility due to their publisher, structure, or absence of fact-checking information. While these may not be primary sources of information worth citing in your content, they could lead you to other more reputable sources that are worth linking to and referencing. These resources include:
Anyone with a Wikipedia account can edit the content on the site. This automatically diminishes its credibility as a source. For example, you don’t have to be a microbiologist to write content about that topic on Wikipedia. You can, however, use the site as a source to find other, more credible information. Not only does each page give you an informational overview of the topic, but it also cites other sources. Scroll to the bottom of each entry to find links to other, more reputable sources that may pass your credibility tests.
These days, anyone can start their own website or blog. And on those channels, people can talk about whatever they want, whether or not they have the training and knowledge to do so. Some websites and blogs can be great content resources, but they have to pass the CRAAP or SMART test before you know for sure. Often, blogs and websites from well-known brands or organizations are more credible than those run by casual writers or topic enthusiasts.
Social media can be a reputable content source if the information comes from a verified account. But, most times it’s better to follow the links from a social media post to the original data study or content, rather than citing the post itself. If you follow links back to the original sources, you have a better chance of sharing factual information rather than potentially sharing opinions and comments from the social media site.
Publications like popular magazines, gossip blogs, and similar content don’t inform audiences about facts. Instead, they entertain. While some of the information in these publications may have research behind it, most of it is gossip and opinions. It’s best to avoid citing these sources when you can in favor of those meant to inform or educate the audience.
Eventually, information about old software, frameworks, and systems becomes outdated when new versions come out. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to quote a source about Windows ’98 in 2022, because nobody uses that operating system anymore. When discussing topics that include regular updates, like software versions or search engine algorithm updates, always look for valid information on the latest version. Otherwise, you’re providing information that’s no longer valuable to your audience.
The more you practice finding and analyzing credible sources for your content, the easier it becomes. You may notice patterns and repetition in the sources you think are best. Bookmark these resources so that you can return to them again and again. The CopyPress newsletter is just one great resource to add to your credible content library. Sign up to get industry updates, expert tips, and content marketing insights straight to your inbox.
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