Writing authoritative content relies on having a good knowledge base beforehand. As an expert in your field, you obviously know quite a bit about what you do. Sometimes, however, a particular project requires more knowledge than you have or delves into a subfield that you’re unfamiliar with. In these cases, you need to have good research skills to synthesize new and old information into genuinely insightful material.
Search Engine Engage
Most of us have a routine for how we conduct research, but it may not be the best method. Searching Google, for example, is an art form in itself. All too often are we tempted to do a quick search and grab the first link that pops up, without any sort of vetting or investigation. Needless to say, this is a bad idea.
One good piece of advice is to skim all ten of your top search results. This will tell you what the best of the best is, particularly if you plan to beat them in SEO! When you vet an article, however, be sure to identify who is the source of the information. Skipping this step can mean linking your customers directly to a competitor’s page – or worse, a completely fake website or one run by a shady group spreading misinformation.
Google’s autocomplete feature usually tells you what others are saying about a topic. This is a great resource for finding keywords you missed, or weren’t even aware of. A variety of search engine commands and characters can provide extra search functionality as well, including:
- Quotes – for an exact phrase
- Minus – this command eliminates the word following the “-“ and refines your search
- Asterisk – an asterisk “*” works like a wildcard in most search engines and can replace words in a phrase to find relevant content
Don’t forget that you can also search other websites, such as Twitter hashtags, for information relating to your industry. You can do this with Google too, using the site: function – think of it as a way to tap directly into a single page. Keep in mind that paid ads usually indicate that you’re on the trail of a monetized topic.
Vetting Your Sources
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times, but to reiterate: Wikipedia is not a reliable source. That’s not to say Wikipedia is devoid of real information, but rather that its open-editing model means you’re not citing a verified expert.
Now start thinking about all the other websites you’ve cited that you never double checked who wrote what.
You can’t skip the vetting process when it comes to evaluating your research. Not every website is created equal, and it’s entirely possible you’ve stumbled on an obscure blog run by an obscure company who wrote a post in 15 minutes – probably without vetting their sources either! Citing a source like this will reduce your credibility if a customer decides to follow your links. Obviously, this also applies to errors such as typos, poor grammar, or outright factual inaccuracies.
So how do you know when a source is useful?
Choosing the Right Sources
Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning offers this valuable advice: “almost any source can be used as evidence that someone believes the idea you quote.” What this means is that, if your goal is to evaluate what others in the industry believe, you can use just about any published materials as valid sources.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a definitive, or even authoritative, source. But it does mean that you can reasonably claim that others believe what you do – or don’t, as the case may be.
Outside of opinion, however, this definition does not work. To choose a good source, there are a few best practices to keep in mind. First, you should check the URL before anything else. This will usually tell you who wrote it – though be wary of imposters – and generally gives a good hint as to the organization behind the site.
Good practice is to avoid citing your competitors, no matter how good their material is. This isn’t necessarily because they’re unreliable so much as it is a direct link to a competing brand’s own marketing material. You don’t want to send a customer to them when you were so close to winning them for yourself. Besides, consider how it looks that you need to cite a competitor for a claim – that doesn’t exactly bolster your own authority, does it?
Certain fields have their own definitions of what constitutes an “authoritative” source. In law, for example, an authoritative source is one which has general precedence over other materials. The legal definition includes secondary – or analytical – sources in addition to the legislation itself. Be aware of these important factors that influence your source-hunting.
For lighter content, you can always run your own impromptu research. Customer testimonials and social media polls are great ways to identify your own internal market’s feelings. Not only is this good from a general marketing perspective, but it works as an authoritative source when writing about your company!
For medicine and other fields, scientific research published online is always a useful resource. Unfortunately, most research is locked behind a paywall with only the abstract available. Many sites offer fact sheets about research, and there’s always the choice of finding an unbiased journalistic publication which summarizes the study. Regardless of how you find one, an academic source is a surefire way to convince your readers you know what you’re talking about.
Good research is harder every day when “fake news” is an entire category of material. Approaching your research with the appropriate mindset, therefore, is even more important today. Learning to use search engines to their maximum potential, as well as identifying if a source is useful or not are crucial processes to getting the most out of your research. Whether you use anchor text, hyperlinks, or a sources section, choosing the right, authoritative sources demonstrate that you are an expert and will build your credibility.