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Researching a Story? Know What Sources to Trust

I was recently asked to write a short article for a client. The assignment: oyster bars in Boston, 250 words. No problem, right? There must be dozens of oyster bars in Bean Town. Thank goodness for Google, the oracle of choice when it comes to researching, well, pretty much anything.

Let me tell you, those were some of the 250 most excruciating words I’ve ever written.

Google “Boston oyster bars” and 610,000 search results turn up. The first page alone shows three “sponsored” pages, a half-dozen articles about Boston’s Top # Oyster Bars, and websites for four restaurants that obviously have a budget for an SEO specialist. Then there’s the list of suggested related searches: Boston’s best oysters 2017, Boston’s best oysters 2016, cheap oysters Boston…

Writers Need Mad Research Skills

“It must be true, I saw it on the internet” is no joke when it comes to developing content. Unless you’re a subject matter expert, anything you write for a client – whether it’s a simple featurette or a long-form white paper – will involve hunting and gathering information. In an ideal world, the client will provide you with primary source material. But the world isn’t always ideal (surprise!) so research you must.

Time to put on your critical thinking cap.

How to Sort Through the Avalanche

Anyone can put anything online – and they do. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

If your resource can answer “yes” to these three questions, it’s a good bet you can trust it.

Is it Timely?

Featuring an oyster bar that’s been closed since 2009 is a bad move. Make sure your information hasn’t passed its sell-by date.

Make a point of checking the date of every online news story, journal article, or blog you use in your research. Suppose you find a roundup of Boston’s 12 best new oyster bars, but you can’t determine when it was published. Should you ditch it? Not necessarily. Look for one or two corroborating sources. If they’re current – and you’re not forced deep down the rabbit hole to dig them up – the info is probably legit.

Don’t count on businesses to keep their websites up to date. I visited one restaurant site on which half of the links were broken (a sign of poor website maintenance) and the menu listed none of the items mentioned by reviewers the previous week. So while I could use for general background – the restaurant’s history, for instance – I had to winnow out potentially obsolete specifics.

Is it Objective?

Unlike the sources above, “sponsored” pages are typically fresh. Businesses can buy their way to the top of search engine rankings; they’re not going to pay to promote an expired special or deceased product. But as a copywriter, you understand what paid content is all about – spin. So tread carefully if you choose these sources in your research.

Remember, too, that even unpaid content isn’t always on the up-and-up. Consider conspiracy theory websites. Okay, that example is a bit over the top. But I know a popular food blogger who also happens to be a marketing executive for a major brand. Conflict of interest much?

My point is this: skilled research involves a discerning eye for bias.

Is it Reputable?

You may come across a site that looks promising at first glance. Then you notice a ton of misspellings. Pages are cluttered with dense copy, animations, and distracting banners. If it feels like you walked into a circus, make sure the clowns know what they’re talking about.

You could argue that crowd-sourcing platforms like Yelp or Trip Advisor are reputable. These sites don’t pretend to be anything other than soapboxes for average folks who have nothing to gain or lose, and in fact, that’s almost exactly what they are.  Still, lots of businesses “buy” five-star raves. Hmmm.

You don’t have to dismiss everything you read on Yelp, et al. But you do have to evaluate your websites carefully and filter the content within accordingly.

Even better, stick with sources affiliated with reputable organizations whenever possible. Look for branding on every page. Best bets include credible news outlet, articles by a thought leaders, and sites with a .gov or .edu extension.

Always consider the source when sleuthing information. Because when it comes to research for content, the internet is not your oyster.

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