The Professional Writer’s Guide to Authoritative Sources
Go back 20 years in time, when finding information was a tedious process. From searching through bulky encyclopedias to taking trips to your local library, finding what you were looking for required quite a bit of digging.
Fast-forward to today, and the Internet has made it easier than ever to find information – regardless of what you’re searching for. There are numerous articles on every possible topic available at your fingertips.
Unfortunately, the information you find online is not always 100 percent accurate. As a writer, this can make it difficult to include accurate sources for your content.
In addition to inaccurate sources, you must also contend with the “fake Internet.” Here’s a telling statistic shared by New York Magazine:
“Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake.”
This isn’t meant to scare you, but to illustrate just how difficult it can be to sift through all the bad information on your search for authoritative sources.
Authoritative sources considered are reliable and credible in terms of content. The definition of an authoritative source differs from one person to the next, but most people agree that these fit into one of three categories:
- Widely recognized sources: These refer to recognized professional publications where industry experts can lend their experise in their specific fields and subjects. For example, Content Marketing Institute is the “leading global content marketing education and training organization.”
- Archival sources and articles: Publicly accessible databases, such as the United States census and LexisNexis, are among the most reputable sources.
- Peer reviewed: These are growing in popularity, with sites like Harvard Business Review providing high-quality information.
- Scholarly articles: These can be found in academic journals and are credible due to the rigourously peer reviewed path it must go through before publication. Therefore the information published is thoroughly researched and backed by data and citations.
Now that you understand what an authoritative source looks like, it’s time to turn your attention to finding what you’re looking for.
Even with billions upon billions of pages online, it’s not always as easy as it sounds finding authoritative sources. It often takes a good amount of time to seek out the best options, compare them, and decide how to proceed.
Here are a few tips you can follow to speed up your search:
- Utilize Google and alternative search engines): This doesn’t mean you’ll find an authoritative source right away, but it’ll at least point you in the right direction. For example, a search for “cancer research studies” turns up more than 895 million results. On the first few pages of the search results, you’ll either find what you’re looking for or realize that you need to expand your search with more specific keywords. Sticking with the above example, “lung cancer research studies 2019” will lead you toward more specific results.
- You can use Google Scholar to search for scholary articles. This search engine offers a broad range of reliable sources and disaplinaries across subjects. It includes primary sources, secondary sources, books, abstracts, academic journals, court cases, etc.
- Don’t use Wikipedia: Yes, Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites in the world. Though its regconized as a place for information, it’s not a reliable source. Anyone can add and edit Wikipedia entries, so you never truly know if the information is accurate. The best way to use Wikipedia is to review the references section for the topic you’re searching. This has the potential to point you toward authoritative sources.
- Contact an expert directly: If your search fails or you want to take things to the next level, contact an expert directly for a quote. You shouldn’t have much trouble finding the email address of anyone you want to speak with. Of course, if you’re in a hurry, it’s typically easier to find a quote that the expert has already provided to another publication.
- Check the competition: This doesn’t mean you should copy every source from a competing piece of content, but this can definitely give you insight on where to start. Just remember to double check the source yourself, as there is no guarantee that every other writer is taking the same caution as you.
Authoritative sources are an important aspect of any high-quality piece of content. For example, if you’re writing a blog post, it’s always best to include several links to authority sites.
Unfortunately, many writers fall short in this area, often because they don’t know where to search or what to include.
Here are some of the biggest mistakes writers make in regards to authoritative sources:
- Using none at all: Rather than search for authoritative sources, they add the first source – good or not – that they come across. This often results in linking to a site that is less than reputable, which harms the credibility of the piece.
- Linking to the wrong source: You shouldn’t necessarily link to the first source that you find. Instead, you may need to backtrack to find the original source. For instance, a commonly cited statistic may be used on a variety of websites. But you don’t want to cite one of those sites. You want to find the original source and link to that.
- Forgetting to attribute: It’s okay to use the information you find online, as long as you attribute it properly. The best approach is to mention the name of the source, while also including a link. This covers all your bases, so you never have to worry about plagiarism.
- Making assumptions: You assume that a website is an authoritative source because you recognize the brand. You assume that another writer did their homework in regards to the sources they used, so you can piggyback off of their work. These assumptions are natural, but you can’t let them guide your decision-making. Every time you add a source to your content, make sure you’ve first double-checked it yourself for accuracy and relevancy.
These aren’t the only potential mistakes lurking, but they are among the most common. If you keep these in mind when writing, you’re more likely to avoid a slip-up that impacts the quality of your content.
The nice thing about authoritative sources is that you can find them for almost every niche and industry imaginable.
While it’s impossible to include a list of every authoritative website, here are some of the most commonly cited:
- Pew Research Center
- Federal Government of the United States
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- World Bank
- Mayo Clinic
While these are specific, here are some general categories to search:
- Research websites
- Educational institutions
- Government websites
- News websites
- Industry leader websites and blogs
For example, if you’re writing an article about a specific medical condition, search hospital and educational institution websites.
Even with all the information above, you may struggle to make a final determination as to whether a website has enough authority to include in your content.
The best thing you can do is answer this basic question: what makes it an authority site?
If there’s an obvious answer, you can proceed. If there isn’t, you should reconsider including it.
Here are some of the answers that validate your thought that the source is authoritative:
- It includes statistics from a research study
- It includes a quote from an industry thought leader
- It was published on a well-known, reputable website
For example, there’s a big difference between a statistic published on IRS.gov (a direct government source) and one published on a random, third party personal finance website.
Any doubt – even a small one – should be enough to prompt you to continue your search.
Your search for authoritative sources is nothing to take lightly. These sources can “make or break” the success of any piece of content.
Even though it adds time to the research process, the use of authoritative sources will improve the quality of your writing. It also helps:
- Engage your audience
- Improve on-site SEO
- Catch the attention of the source
With the guidance above, you should now have a clear idea of how to find and use authoritative sources. Thus making your piece a reliable source of information.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you have any additional advice to include?
Chris B. is a freelance writer and digital marketing consultant based in Pittsburgh, PA. When he’s not creating content, Chris enjoys watching sports, working in the yard, and spending time with his family.