Of Snake Oil Salesmen and Online Experts: 10 Tips to Decide Who to Trust Online

The minute expertise became an online commodity, the Internet was suddenly awash with experts. But many Internet users have learned the hard way that not everyone is who they say they are.

So how do you choose the experts from the actors? Consider these ten tips.

Experts, Experts Everywhere…

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the way people are using the Internet to promote their expertise and experience. Though there are many angles to this subject, two of them in particular stand out: 1. The plight of the consumer trying to decide how to choose the right expert to work with and 2., The attempts of legitimate experts trying to define what value they have to offer to their customers and how they should offer it.

Underlying all the disparate opinions and commentary on these two subjects is one common theme: that of trust. Trust, and by extension reputation, has fast become the new online benchmark of value and success, and as such, many slick, opportunistic hustlers are already poised to capitalize on it.

So how can consumers protect themselves, and how can legitimate professionals and small business owners gain the trust of their target audience? Consider the ten factors below. Note: Though I wrote these factors from the perspective of the consumer, the professional will also benefit from studying them.

1. What do your social networks say? Your social networks are a good starting point when seeking the services of an online professional since your contacts may be able to both identify who to work with and who to stay away from. Just keep in mind though, that the quality of the feedback you receive will be dependent on the quality of the relationships you have built up with the people in your online social circles.

2. What is their educational experience background? Does the expert provide a list of educational achievements and other experiences? Obviously, this factor by itself, will not mean much regarding the person’s actual level of competence, and he or she may also be fabricating the background, but it is an additional clue to be on the lookout for.

3. Do they provide references? Does your expert provide contactable and/or well-known references? If yes, then make an effort to get in touch with at least three of them. I will also include here testimonials. Testimonials have significantly more value when those who make them are well-known or are actual people or organizations that can be contacted. The most flowing and positive testimonial has basically no value if it is left by “-John S.

4. What is their level of engagement with others? Do your experts respond to the comments left on their blog or on Facebook? Do they solely use Twitter to broadcast information or is there also a conversation happening? Do they go out and comment in forums or other people’s blogs? All these are clues pointing to a legitimate professional. But just a caveat: some people may do a good job going through the motions, or they’ve hired someone to do their social networking in their name. Again, this is just one more piece of a bigger picture.

5. Where has this person left an online footprint? Where does the expert “hang out” online? The frequented social networks, blogs, forums, etc. say a lot about who this person is and isn’t.

6. How long have they been around? While you are doing some research on their personal digital footprint, also consider the longevity and continuity of their online presence. It shows that you are dealing with real person, since con artists tend to change their identities rather quickly.

7. What is this person’s message? If you follow someone long enough you should begin to detect common themes in what they say and how they say it. This is a very good sign of genuineness. A person who constantly changes his tune and style or consistently offers popular truisms without adding a unique voice or perspective, should be held suspect. Everyone has experiences and qualities that make them unique- even if they can’t come up with so many original things to say. It’s that uniqueness that needs to come through.

8. What is the quality of their content? What is overall relevance and usefulness of the content they publish online? Again, the person can be hiring a ghost writer, so exercise caution. Another subtle clue is looking at how much free content and advice they offer versus paid. A well-seasoned online expert will know how and where to offer free information and then where to draw the line (usually, by learning from their past mistakes).

9. How do they respond to direct inquiries? Searching for someone to work with online is no different from searching in person. Before you commit significant time and/or money to someone, try to get in touch with this person. Send an email, tweet, leave a message on Facebook. If you have a hard time getting in touch with someone, then it may not be a good sign. (But obviously, you should give busy-looking people time to respond. I suggest about a week depending on the kind of inquiry you’ve made and the medium.)

10. Above all, rely on your gut feeling. The truth is that each one of these factors by themselves are not necessarily an indication of a person’s true level of expertise and sincerity. Only when they are taken together as a whole do they have value. Snake oil salesmen have always existed, but the truth is that the majority of these people are easy to spot- whether online or off. However, where fact is skillfully mixed in with fiction, then there you have to exert an effort. Sometimes all you’ll have is your gut feeling.

In short, though experts online abound, many of them are cameleons and even trust building actions are being leveraged. If you want to pick out the legitimate players, then do your research and follow your gut feeling. If something feels off, then it’s probably a pretty good sign to get clicking on out of there.