Link Rot: Research Enemy No. 1

14 November 2019 8:02am

A pile of brown, rotting chain links sits on a pallet on a dirt floor. Link Rot: Research Enemy Number 1

To say that the internet has changed how we gather and share information is a massive understatement. From the popularization of listicles packed with interesting facts and figures to the ability to easily conduct in-depth research of consumer behaviors and industry movement, the internet provides an instant connection to virtually limitless facts and sources.

But it’s not without problems.

The gold standard for research remains primary sourcing—information reported directly by the subject or original field researcher. Secondary sourcing—reporting that references the account of the original source—remains valuable so long as the source is credible,but the closer a researcher can get to a primary source, the better. When tracking competitor’s performance results, for instance, an SEC or public filing would be a preferred primary source. A well-cited media report from a major newspaper is the next best thing.

Where the internet can sometimes cause problems is the vast amount of content that is far-removed from the original source.  Like the children’s game telephone—where a word or phrase is whispered, one after the other, down a line of participants—the further you get from the original source, the more garbled and unreliable the information becomes.

Online this often takes the form of link rot. Sometimes called reference rot or link death, this problem occurs when a secondary internet reference links to a primary source (e.g. a press release, research study or autobiographical account) that’s URLno longer exists.

When this happens, it becomes impossible to verify the accuracy of the secondary source,ostensibly creating a researcher’s dead end. This can make it difficultto fact-check competitor’s claims, or to verify certain “facts” that your industry may repeat without adequate sourcing. Luckily, there are some ways to combat this informational blight.

Prioritize Primary Sourcing

Link rot is far less of a problem when youprioritizeusing primary sources for your research. Especially when dealing with competitive intelligence, primary sourcing helps get straight to the facts without questionable—and potentially biased—sourcing or spin.

If yourresearch brings up a secondary source, it’s crucial to take the time to properly adjudicate the validity of the source material to sort fact from propaganda. For example, press releases can be great primary sources for updates on the operations of competitors. Understand, however, that while a competitor is the ultimate primary authority on their organization, any claims they make about customer behaviors or comparisons to the industry at large become secondary and should be traced to the source.

Still better than press releases are legal, patent or business filings, which come with strict penalties for any false or unverifiable claims. While typical search engines will often favor media reports or secondhand analysis, Nexis®solutionsallow researchers to specifically query such filings. Because these are often hosted by governmental organizations with strict record keeping laws, link rot is significantly less likely.

Vet and Identify the Most Reliable Secondary Sourcing

Link rot often occurs when one non-primary source references another non-primary source, which then cites yet another non-primary source and so on… creating a trail of breadcrumbs that often leads to nowhere. Researchers attempting to find the original source can follow the trail, only to find that it ends with a link that no longer exists.

Starting research with the highest-quality sourcing can eliminate much of this frustration.The best sources will often cite only recently acquired primary sources for their claims. Common high-quality sources include national or metropolitan newspapers-of-record or highly circulated trade publications with a dedicated editorial staff.

If you’re using Nexis® for research, you’re starting a step ahead. We simplify intelligence gathering by doing much of the source vetting on the front-end.We then maintain the articles in an archive so you can access the reputable source for decades.

Still, there can be occasions where a high-quality source for one industry or geographic area provides less-reliable information for subjects outside of their typical scope.

To quickly find the sources that are most relevant and useful for your research goals, you can narrow down results using our “publication type” or “publication name” filters. If you’re just starting to build a list of the most relevant and reliable sources, filtering by industry can help bring quality trade journals to the forefront, while geographic filters can help to identify the right sources within your preferred region.

Ultimately, the best antidote tolink rot when researching is doubling down on the fundamentals. Often, bad links represent outdated or bad sourcing and are a red flag to use a more critical eye. If you’re unsure where to start—or how to climb out of never-ending trail of link rot—contact our team today to see how our suite of research tools can help.

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