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20 Minutes to Expert: How to Perform Reliable Content Research When Time Isn't on Your Side

When I was just a young pup trying to make his way in the vast and often unforgiving wilderness of content marketing (yes, I’m talking about back in 2013), I often found myself assigned to write about topics that were, shall we say, not within my field of expertise. This was neither uncommon nor unexpected; after all, when your field of expertise consists of an encyclopedic knowledge of 90s-era animated superhero television shows and almost nothing else, then you should expect to work outside your comfort zone.

So, I learned the art of the 20-minute masters course. If I needed to write about tips to getting the most out of the Paleo diet, my first step would be to type “what is paleo diet” into my Google search bar, and my second and last step would be to create an 800 word article about how throwing out 10,000 years of agricultural science might actually be a healthy decision. If I was asked to highlight the benefits of solar energy, I’d learn the science while writing it and come away an hour later convinced that traditional utilities were the tools of the devil.

I learned a lot during those 20-minute, panic-fueled research sessions—taking in, metabolizing, and excreting knowledge back into the internet, like some virtual circle of life, except with trivia and statistics instead of whatever The Lion King was about. By the way, when Simba became leader of the pride, did he kill all of the other male cubs? Because I’ve heard that lions do that.

In any case, the end results were, if I may say so, decently informed content presented in a way that was at least mildly interesting. For example, take an article I wrote about food storage and different types of fictional apocalypses. I mean, when faced with a sea of emergency preparedness articles, it was nice to be able to create something unique, in that it was was both helpful and unflinchingly honest about your family’s chances of surviving a robot uprising. Of course, that’s not to say that I didn’t encounter the occasional snag. Research, particularly the kind that is motivated by imminent deadlines, isn’t always an exact science.

If you’re finding yourself in a similar situation—needing to produce factually-based content quickly—then I think I can help. The internet is a big place, and if you know where to look, whom to ask, and what ‘sponsored content’ is (hint: it’s not news), then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to locate the information you need, and with enough time left over to turn it into something useful.

Recognize authority

This may come as a shock to some readers, but just because it’s on the internet doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s trustworthy. Believe me when I say that it doesn’t take much in the way of credibility to get your words up on a website. Do you think that Buzzfeed is asking for credentials and references from the person who just wrote “15 Reasons why Cocoa Butter Is the Best Thing Ever”? Of course not. Why would they? Most internet users aren’t looking for peer-reviewed studies; they’re after some quick entertainment, and the thought of tracing sources or following up on bibliographies is about as far from “quick” or “entertaining” as you can get.

That doesn’t excuse your responsibility as a content creator. To put it bluntly, the internet is already well stocked with sensationalism and biased opinions masquerading as fact; don’t add to it. If you’re going to be presenting information, do everything in your power to ensure that it’s reliable information. Which, of course, means knowing where to find it.

Government and educational sites are generally held to a higher standard than others, although that’s not to say that they are always 100% accurate (or unbiased). Still, those that include data from relevant studies are usually trustworthy, and will not only provide you with relatively reliable information from which to craft your content, but may also give you interesting stats and data to link to to support any arguments you might be making.

News sites are also authoritative resources, but bear in mind that not every news site is created equal, nor is every site that identifies itself as a news site recognized as one. Some are just ideological outlets for particular interest groups (I’m not naming any names, Fox News and Huffington Post). There’s actually a lot of data that goes into which news sites are the most reliable and objective, and I’m not going to bother reproducing it here, but feel free to check it for yourself. Stick to the ones at the top of the list, and you should be OK.

What not to share

On the bottom of the barrel, we’ve got blogs. Now, I’m not suggesting that blogs are incapable of unbiased reporting or producing accurate data, but I am going to point out that when a post is being written by a single author, for that author’s site, with no editorial or supervision failsafes in place, then there’s really nothing stopping them from making whatever claims they’d like. If, on the other hand, a blog includes links to its resource material, then feel free to track the truth down yourself, and if it looks promising, then link to the original source in your own article.

Finally, I’d like to set a few things straight with regard to Wikipedia. First, no, you should never link to Wikipedia. This is because Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia, and you really don’t have any way of knowing whether the author was relaying reliable information. Perhaps even more importantly Wikipedia has a reputation for being a non-reliable source. A link to Wikipedia can end up doing more harm to the perceived authority of your article than whatever information you’re attempting to cite could hope to offset. Interestingly enough, I was once writing for an Australia-based client who wanted links from Government sites, and I discovered that the Australian .gov pages were not above linking directly to Wikipedia articles. I think I found where I’d like to retire.

This is because, in my personal experience, I’ve found Wikipedia to be one of the most accurate and complete internet resources available. When it comes to general information, I’m more likely to trust Wikipedia than any government or news site, because if there’s one thing that the kind of people who write and edit for wikipedia love, it’s correcting each other. No fallacy or inaccuracy is going to last long when you have thousands (or more) of potential editors looking over everyone’s shoulders, just aching for a chance to show off what they’ve got. It’s like misusing the word “whom” in a room full of English teachers—you’re going to be corrected, and it’s going to be swift.

So, should you use Wikipedia? Of course you should! It’s probably the most complete repository of human knowledge available. Just don’t link to it. Instead, use Wikipedia as a general research tool, and then if you need something to link to, check out the references section. You can evaluate the authoritativeness of specific resources, and if they look good, then you can link to them yourself. You should already be in the habit of tracing information back to its source, so in that respect, Wikipedia really isn’t any different.

Finally, as a general rule, if a site is actively trying to sell you something, then it may not be the best resource. On the other hand, if they support their claims by linking to relevant studies or including a bibliography section, then there’s no reason why you can’t take advantage of their hard work. Don’t worry, if you do a good enough job, you’ll be able to pay to forward to the next internet writer who comes to your site looking for usable information.

All in good time

Pretty straightforward so far, right? Well, there’s one other thing to consider when researching your article: time. No, I’m not talking about the deadline; I know you haven’t forgotten that part. I’m talking about the date stamped on your source material. You see, usable information is three things—reliable, relevant, and recent. If you find the perfect stats to support your argument, but they’re from a report conducted three decades before the word ‘internet’ even existed, then they’re not the perfect stats. That said, the shelf life on some resources is longer than others.

As an example, let’s take a look at the two links I’ve included in this post. The first one is found all the way back up the page in paragraph #3 (the weird part about how much I dislike Lion King). Clicking that link will take you to a news report on the site Livescience.com. The article is everything you might want in a linkable resource—it’s authoritative, well researched, blah, blah, blah. But take a look at the year it was published. 2013. That means that the data is going on half a decade old. A discerning reader will make note of that, and might wonder why you haven’t been able to find anything newer to back up your arguments.

The second link is the one about which news sites are most widely trusted (about eight paragraphs up from this one). The page I’ve linked to was published less than two months ago, and that means the data is as fresh as a crispy head of lettuce.

But, like I said, the shelf life all depends on what you’re linking. The piece about the lions was published three to four years ago, sure, but how much could lions have changed in that time? On the other hand, the data about the reliability of news sites would likely be outdated much sooner. Can you think of any events, say, maybe far-reaching political events, that might have changed how readers view news-site reputability? In this case, even data that is only a year old might be too antiquated to use. It’s all about what information you’re citing.

Want an easy solution? Well, I’ve got one for you. When you do a Google search for reliable information, just click on the “settings” button underneath the search bar, and scroll down to “advanced search.” This will take you to a new page, where you can more clearly define what kinds of sites you’re looking for. About halfway down the page, you’ll see the “last update” option. Select it, and then select “past year,” before finalizing your search. This will return only pages that have been updated within the last twelve months, so you’ll have fewer outdated results to sift through. Trust me; this one’s a time saver.

The 20-minute expert

It would certainly be nice to be able to contain all of our writing within our own areas of expertise, but it’s just not realistic. In fact, in the four years I’ve been writing at 97th Floor, I think I’ve only had one article published that made any sort of reference to Batman: The Animated Series, and it was subtle enough that the editors at Business.com didn’t notice. The reality is that in order to succeed as an internet content creator, you’ll probably have to take a few steps out of your comfort zone, and that’s actually a good thing.

You can be the expert that readers need, even if that expertise is built on nothing more than 20-minutes of Google search results. After all, content marketing is all about providing readers with content that is educational and informative, and if you can give it to them, then no one will care that you’d be more comfortable writing about cartoons.

Oh, and with that, it looks like I’ve now referenced Batman in two of my articles. I guess my expertise is worth something after all.

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