Sources–The How, When, and What of Web Writing

March 24, 2014


Today, we can find and learn almost anything online. The internet has virtually changed the entire process of finding information and gaining knowledge. No longer do we have to spend hours at the library, searching academic tomes or dissertations. No longer do we have to meticulously save our sources on 3×5 notecards in order to substantiate our ideas or re-locate information.

Now, we have Wikipedia—the online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to, so you know you’re always getting the best possible information.

Although that Wikipedia comment is made tongue-in-cheek, there is some truth to it. With some good judgment on our part, the information we seek for everyday purposes is accurately found online. Either out of the goodness of their hearts or for ad profit, people are willing to share their knowledge and expertise.

How to Cite Sources

With this paradigm shift in how we find information comes a change in how we cite information. Web writing is not concerned with lengthy MLA- or APA-style citations such as

Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Harmony, 1980. 17-18. Print.


Smith, J. (2009). Internet. In Encyclopaedia Britannica (Vol. 20, pp. 81-82). Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Instead, to properly cite a source, you simply link a word or two in an article to your online source—only using the best and most helpful sources, to keep your article from looking spammy.

When to Cite Sources

Citations are still used to provide legitimacy to a piece and to point out credible websites that can back up what you’re saying. Citations also show that you did your homework and that you really care about your topic.

In the age of the Internet, citations have a couple of additional purposes: to point the reader toward more information and to ensure that the reader is on the same page as the writer.

For example, if I were discussing the current situation in Ukraine, I might point to a reputable article that discusses an overview of recent events in Ukraine. This way my readers and I have the same basic foundation of knowledge heading into my article.

If I reference Idina Menzel’s performance of “Let it Go” at the Oscars, I may want to link to the video of her performance so that my readers have the event fresh in their minds as they read my article.

You don’t have to cite everything that you say. In fact, numerous hyperlinks decrease the article’s value and, once again, make the article look spammy. Remember, people can find anything they want online. Hyperlink a source when the source will really add to your piece. Sources for the sake of sources are more detrimental than helpful.

What Sources to Cite

A good rule of thumb to follow when hyperlinking citations is to link a source when the page contains information that you would say if your article permitted it. So, for example, if the source information would make your article too long and risk reader engagement, if it references something outside the scope of your article, or if the source simply says something better than you could, then let the source do the talking.

In WritersDomain terms, this means that citing the actual Fair Housing Act when talking about home mortgages is not an effective use of a citation. The document is long, confusing, and boring. Your readers have no interest in reading the legal mumbo jumbo. They would much rather just read what you have to say about mortgages and move on.

An example of a useful citation in relation to our mortgage article is, “Then, once you gather the necessary documents, you are ready to talk to a lender. The lender will…” You aren’t going to list the necessary documents and their purposes because that doesn’t quite fit into the scope of your article and you don’t want to wander off tangentially. Instead, you link an easy-to-read, reputable source and move on with your article. Your readers benefit from the great use value of your article, as well as the additional information you have offered through your source.


There will always be information that is highly technical, sensitive, and/or legal that will require very careful sourcing in order for readers to believe it and implement it. At WritersDomain, writers are required to cite sources for any rare facts or specific stats and numbers.

For the vast majority of the information we find, sources are not required or used in the way they once were. Instead, use sources and citations as helps to point your readers to additional sites that may be of interest and benefit to them. The more your article helps readers in every way, the more reader engagement you will have.


By Jeremy Lindström

Jeremy is the Community Content Manager at WritersDomain and is responsible for writer relations. Outside of WritersDomain, he loves spending time with his wife and new baby. He moonlights as a professional jump roper and is often traveling and performing with his jump rope team.

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  • Laura College

    March 24, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks for the refresher, Jeremy. Wikipedia is actually my favorite place to find sources, though I don’t think I’ve ever sourced the site itself—it’s the footnotes that are the goldmine. 🙂

    1. Jeremy Lindström

      March 25, 2014 at 10:57 am

      Definitely. Wikipedia is a great way to find legitimate sources!

      1. amar

        April 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm

        yes , it can be useful time to time 😉 but i rather look other way for writing , like gov information 😉

        1. WritersDomain

          April 2, 2014 at 2:14 pm

          Government websites certainly add authority, no doubt. Just make sure your links are useful to the reader!

  • Kim Kirsch

    March 24, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Great article! Thanks for clearing some things up. 🙂

  • Mark Cato

    March 25, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Thanks, for the post Jeremy. I especially like the pic from Mike from “The Office”. People have a lot of misconceptions of information they find on the Internet, but if you know how to sort through it, it can be valuable. The citations are something that I have been wondering about for several reasons. I am tempted to use the MLA format that I was required to in college sometimes, but common sense tells me not too. I was really wondering about citing videos too, because a lot of times I find Youtube videos and get ideas for my articles. Sometimes citing a video can help give readers a clearer view of the message I am writing I think.

    Also, I have been asked to cite prices of some general products in some of my articles. Is it Ok to use sites like Amazon or Ebay to cite prices of general items like a tool, car part or blinds for a home?

  • Stephanie L.

    June 27, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    My question is this…if we name a source we specifically use to cite numbers and stats – Do we still need to link to it if it’s long and detailed, etc. as you say not useful to the reader?

    Also – when citing sources of interest, what are the specific guidelines as to what is acceptable beyond .gov and .edu .org etc? I know competitors aren’t acceptable, but how ‘reputable’ do they need to be?

    Thanks for any help.

    1. WritersDomain

      July 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm

      If the only source you have is long and detailed, then it’s best to leave the stats out. If the article can’t stand without the stats, then it’s best to choose a different angle.

      Sources of interest should be just that. You’re welcome to cite whatever you wish as long as it’s pertinent, relevant, and feels legitimate. Hopefully this helps!

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