Recently I was victim of an ecommerce store scam. I did get my money back in the end (thanks to PayPal’s buyer security scheme), but it got me thinking about how easy it is for people to get taken in by content online. There are so many websites out there masquerading as sources of ‘expert’ or impartial content, with very few credentials to back them up. Now, I am no ‘expert’ either, but as a Digital Copywriter, I do feel qualified to evaluate content online. Here are some key things to look out for when deciding whether an online source is credible. Obviously take this list with a pinch of salt, as certain credible sources (like personal blogs) may be lacking in some criteria, but if your source fails the entire content checklist- then I would certainly be very wary!

Low quality content with poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling

OK, so sometimes it’s absolutely fine to relax grammar rules a little when writing online. But if someone is literally taking no care whatsoever over the presentation of their content, it does make you wonder if they were as slapdash when it came to researching and fact-checking. Checking spelling only takes a few minutes, and grammar might be harder to fix- but there are plenty of tools out there to help. Sloppy writing can be a sign of sloppy knowledge. Bad writing goes hand in hand with a lack of editing, which in itself can be dangerous. Editing content gives people time to reflect on what they have written, and make sure it’s accurate. Having an actual editorial process, with good editors checking writing before it goes live, is the best way to ensure copy is written to a high standard.

Little content, or content that dries out a few pages deep

Sometimes websites don’t have enough words to do justice to their subject matter.  Have you come across a website that was very superficial, and didn’t really offer anything new on a topic? Or the content on the first few landing pages seemed fine, but then it became seriously thin on the ground a few pages in? This might be a sign of an unfinished project, or a webmaster who doesn’t pay particular attention to content. If this is the case- consider whether the website has an ulterior motive like promoting ads, or selling you products instead? If the content is just there as a commercial vehicle, and hasn’t been created with users in mind, it might not be well researched.

No author details, or no idea who published the piece (and when!)

Not knowing who actually wrote something, or who is responsible for a piece of content, is worrying.  You don’t necessarily need a name and photo in an author bio (though that’s always helpful), but a general idea of where the content came from, and who is endorsing it is important. Content can be created by an individual or an organisation, and organisational content is often the product of many people’s expertise. Not having a proper time stamp on content means that you don’t know whether data is out of date, or whether it’s been updated since it was first written. Especially content that includes facts and figures should be dated.

Claims are not backed up by a link/ information is not properly credited

If an author is making loads of wild claims, or talking about precise data, without any links out or credits to the original source- that’s bad practice. Online plagiarism isn’t something many people do on purpose, but taking facts and figures and not crediting the source is something I see quite a lot. It’s not OK to steal someone else’s ideas or IP. A website that frequently does this isn’t following best practice content guidelines.

No membership badges from professional bodies or membership organisations

Most industries have a regulatory body or two, and being a member is usually a prerequisite of reaching a certain professional standard. Even if it is more of a ‘formality’, being a member of these organisations and associations is a sign of professionalism. Especially in industries that touch upon travel, insurance, property, or anything legal, you would expect to see plenty of professional badges on the company home page.  A lack of professional badges may be partly due to people not realising they should include these on their website, but it could also be a sign of a rogue operator.

Lots of affiliate links

Earning money through affiliate links is totally legitimate, and often affiliate links are found in useful resources like product reviews with plenty of unique content. However, if a site has been built only for the express purpose of generating income through these links, it’s worth considering whether the content has been produced for ‘neutral’ informational purposes- or whether it’s more interested in selling you something or satisfying a search engine algorithm. Non-disclosed affiliate links are also not a great sign.

Information seems common-sense/oddly familiar

If the content you are reading online is just re-hashing common sense ideas as ‘new’, what value is the content really adding to the conversation? One of the tenets of online writing is adding user-value, and content that ignores this is not a good sign. Sometimes it can be hard to say something completely unique in a saturated niche, but copy which is literally re-hashing old stuff is usually easy to spot. In the worst case scenario, it could also be plagiarised and wholesale copied from somewhere else. Content like this is often a sign that someone is trying to quickly monetise a site and get traffic, without having to pay for unique and quality content.

Content feels ‘hacked together’

If there is a sudden change in tone, voice, or subject matter, without an explanation, it may be a sign of multiple authors and poor editing. Multiple authorship is not necessarily an issue if someone has taken care with editing. Content that is produced by different people can lack coherence and purpose if it isn’t edited properly, and shifts in tone can be jarring. Maybe a writer dropped out of a web project, or many writers were brought in to save money? If the quality hasn’t suffered, multiple authorship is OK, but content should never feel feel piecemeal.

Lack of informational pages

Pages that cover information such as website guidelines, deliveries, payment details, customer service, FAQs, and terms & conditions, may not always get a lot of traffic- but they are valuable. These pages can positively contribute to search engines ranking “Your Money or Your Life” pages, as it shows the webmaster is taking care of web users, and being honest about how the business operates.  If you can’t easily contact a business, or struggle to find out key details about their service- be careful. On the other hand, these pages aren’t a guarantee in themselves that a website is trustworthy either. It’s surprising how easy it is to knock a few ‘credible’ pages together, giving an air of respectability.

Lack of links to the site, lack of social shares/comments

If the site has no backlinks, no comments,  and no social shares- is it a credible website? Is it just an undiscovered resource, or could it be a sign of something else? Useful and valuable online content is often quickly discovered and referenced by other people. A complete lack of online endorsement may signal a lack of credibility.

Have you got any other content warning signs to share?