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Watch for the march of the would-be website experts

March 15, 2021

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Journalists know in theory that marketers want to get attention because it might help their businesses. But their actions can take subtle and even sneaky forms.

One I’ve seen for a while is the emergence of the “expert” site. Whether consumer finance, college loans, technology, health, or some other area, they probably haven’t been around long.

PR representatives, or maybe the site’s owners, seek reporters who need sources. Then the site begins its pitches, often sending entire views with the expectation or hope that a reporter short of time will use them.

And if they do, bam, a shot of instant credibility. Get mentioned in enough places and you can then start claiming the publications, no matter how small the quote or obscure the story, to build a sense of validation and expertise. They also hope to get people to come because the site is running a mix of advertising and affiliate links (someone clicks through and buys a product, they get a cut).

As the sites try for attention and a chance to establish a position as experts in some area, tread carefully. You don’t want to hitch your stories to sources that could make you look bad. You certainly don’t want to act as a publicity resource when your duty is to your readers and the truth. Here are four things to consider when a new-to-you website starts to nudge for your attention:

Look for the authority play. The marketing aim behind sites is to develop an authority stance. To that end, the people will make strong statements that they think will attract journalists looking for a good quote. You need to push back to be sure that people are who they say they are. What expertise does a given person have? Is there one person who wants to expound on anything and everything? If some “expert” from the site, do a web check. Is the person actually an expert or someone who’s written some about the subject before?

Time in existence. Always check how long the site has been in business. Go to the Icann domain look-up first and put in the domain name ([this site].[com or other extension]). That will give you the place that actually registered the domain and should provide the date on which the domain became active.

Don’t be fooled by design. About five or six years ago, a small site would keep pitching the owner as the expert on one thing and another. The site was clumsy and the design terrible, so was a potential red flag of an amateur operation. Over time, the site has improved the design, but it’s not clear whether the expertise has gained significantly. Almost anyone can get a slick design these days.

Avoid prepared responses. It’s become too easy to post queries on a topic though one of the online services, pick up a handful of likely sounding quotes, and put them into a story to speed up product. It’s a mistake in general, as you’ll end up with shallow work. When it comes to the websites looking to show expertise, it’s even more of an issue. The responses tend to be overly confident and without significant nuance. You can’t get a sense of what someone actually knows from a paragraph.

I’m not knocking may of the specialty sites that are established and have people with specific expertise. Some can be good sources now and some might develop over time. Make sure you’re using the best, and not most convenient, for your reporting.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

    View all posts

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