How to Research Well, Part One:
Is This Website Legit?
By Evan Braun
Of all the things I learned in college, there is one specific lesson in one specific class that especially stands out in my memory. At the time it was just another lesson during my first-year of communications studies. It didn’t stand out in any way.
In retrospect, however, it was one of the most important lessons of all. One I will never forget. One that imparted to me one of my most important life skills.
The assignment of the day was to look at a series of websites and decide whether each one was credible. And then we were to report on why we came to those determinations.
The point was to make us better at research, to equip us to discern if the information we found online was a good source of information and could be trusted.
I can’t help but think that our world would be a better place if every grade school student undertook the same lesson. How much societal grief might we be able to avoid, nipping unnecessary confusion dissension right out of the starting gate?
Not only is this an important life skill in general, but it became critical later in life when my career took a turn and I became a book editor. It’s also been an extremely useful skill in my other job as the managing editor of my local newspaper. In both of these roles, I engage in a certain amount of fact-checking.
Writers of all stripes end up conducting a lot of research, and it’s important that they choose reliable sources. So how can you sift out credible versus non-credible sources so that your book can stand up as a product of integrity?
That’s the subject of today’s blog post, in which I share some practical tips you can use in your research efforts. Indeed, I’ll be focusing on the research question for the next few blog posts.
In this initial article, I’ll be starting with some of the fundamentals.
First of all, check the date of any information you’ve found online, to make sure that it’s current and/or still relevant. This is a really simple early step you can take to ensure that a source is up to snuff.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been brought up short in my social media wanderings by a post sharing a news article that the user thought was current only to be told in the comments that it’s actually a few months—or worse, a few years—old. It can be embarrassing to share out-of-date information!
Reputable news websites will always include the date of publication, and usually also the date when an article was updated. Most blogs also have date and time stamps (although as I’ll share later, personal blogs aren’t the best resource). Many other types of sites will have a note at the bottom of the page indicating the last time it was updated. This is always important information to take note of.
If information isn’t recent, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it in your writing at all. But you would be well-served to contextualize the information by being clear with your reader about where it comes from and when it was published.
Next, pay attention to the website’s domain name. Okay. Now, if we’re honest not everyone knows what a domain name is, so let’s get that out of the way. The domain name is, essentially, just the name of a website.
Take the website you’re currently reading this on: www.wordalivepress.ca.
So what aspects of the domain name should you be paying attention to? A few things here, most of which are pretty self-evident.
First off, make sure the name of the site matches the content of the site. The name “wordalivepress” implies a publishing company—and lo and behold, that’s what we are.
Second, ask yourself some questions. Does it sound legit and professional? Are there typos in it? Those would be red flags, of course.
Finally, look at the suffix. Most legitimate websites will be followed by .com, .ca, .org, .gov, .edu, etcetera. If something about the suffix doesn’t seem right to you, there’s likely something fishy going on. Scammers sometimes work hard to produce fake sites that may look authentic to the eye—but then, in the domain name, there’s a series of letters or numbers that mark it for what it truly is.
This next one I already mentioned, briefly, in relation to the last point, but it bears repeating for the entire website you’re looking at in general: be on your guard for typos or unprofessional writing/layout. If it doesn’t look professional, it very often isn’t.
There is a lot more to understand about online research, so come back next month for a continuation on the research theme.
Did you enjoy this post? Read the next installment of the series, Best Practices.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.