I saw in my social media monitoring system the other day that someone had written a blog post and linked to one of mine. Ordinarily, that’s a good thing, and not something of concern, but when I saw the anchor text, I had a mild concern. The anchor text read: “A recent study by Christopher Penn showed…”
What’s the problem here? There are some things I approach as actual studies, like the paper I wrote with Talkwalker on SEO and social monitoring. That was an actual study, with all the rigor expected of research. The blog post referenced, on content length and traffic generation, wasn’t a full, proper study.
Why Wasn’t This a Study?
Let’s pick apart why it wasn’t. First, was it balanced and representative? By using English stopwords as the query term, it was reasonably representative, but not entirely. If we were talking about a real study, I should have included a panel of stopwords in the top 5 languages of the world or something like that – something that would have given more of a global perspective. (at least the sample size was representative, though)
Second, the window of time – 7 days – was probably a little too short. Expanding it out to 30 days to smooth out any anomalies – or at least sampling a different 7 day window – would be better.
Third, and procedurally important, there was neither a full methodology statement nor a disclosure of competing interests. The omission of either would be an automatic disqualification in something like a review process before actual publication.
In short, this blog post – while factually correct and reasonably fair – wouldn’t meet the standards we should hold an actual study to.
So What’s the Problem?
The problem is that someone else believed that blog post, which lacked the rigor to be a study, was a valid substitute for an actual study. Now, in the grand scheme of things, it’s all just content marketing stuff – no one’s making any life or death decisions based on a blog post about how long content should be. But at the same time, it speaks to how discerning people are NOT when they’re presented with information that may or may not be credible.
When we make decisions for our business, we must make sure those decisions are not only based on data, but based on credible data. When I was looking up how many blog posts are published each day above (to determine if I had a representative sample), I found a dozen articles that linked back to another article that finally linked back to the activity counters on WordPress.com. I love WordPress, but this counter only represents the blog posts appearing on the WordPress.com platform. Blogs like this aren’t represented, so all those other posts claiming how many blog posts are written each day are based on a non-representative sample.
Someone perceiving a blog post I wrote and confusing it with an actual study is a symptom of a greater problem: a collective inability to discern what is credible data and what is not. The takeaway here is to be cautious in the data you ingest and cite. Question it.
Research Cheat Sheet
As a cheat sheet, here are the four questions I ask of any content purporting to be research.
- When was the study/research performed?
- How large a sample, and of what population, does the research claim to represent?
- Is that a representative sample?
- How was the data gathered?
- Who sponsored/performed the research?
- Does that represent a conflict of interest?
- Is that a competent authority on the topic?
If a piece of research content doesn’t answer these questions clearly, treat it as suspect, and do not use it to make decisions.
Ensure studies you’re using to make decisions are valid – and not just because it comes from a credible source, but the data itself is credible. Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how trusted they are. Be sure you’re making business decisions with data you know is solid.
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