As genealogists, we have to sort through a lot of information that we gather from various sources. As we do this, we need to wonder which of those sources we can trust. Humans created all of the records we use and humans are known for their mistakes. We need to be constantly wary of unreliable sources, especially those that can fool us into thinking they are reliable. Here are some very helpful, very good sources that can be misleading. We should use them, but while we are doing so, know that you can't completely trust the information they provide.
Indexes are a wonderful tool and can help speed your searching. However, they often misspell or omit some names from the record. If you don't find the name you are looking for in the index, do not assume it's not in the record. Indexes aren't perfect, so don't give up when you can't find exactly what you are looking for. Once you've done your preliminary search check for odd spellings. This can be anything from a reversal of surname and first name to a simple transposition of letters. Names also could be corrupted in the record, so take into account any variation in name spelling. For example, a heavy accent could impact what the person writing the record heard and consequently wrote. Other things to look for are relatives or neighbors of the person as their information could lead you to the person.
The census is a great tool for genealogists, but it not completely accurate. Census takers got the information however they could. For example, they may have talked to a child or the neighbor to get information about your family. The census certainly is one of the greatest records we have and one of the best places to start your research, but don't let it be the end of your research or you may miss a lot of information.
Information from Ancestral File, Ancestry's World Tree and other submitted genealogies can be a great source and another excellent place to begin your research. However, these family trees can be submitted by anyone. Many of these trees are riddled with errors. They can contain made-up names, misinformation and extra people. I even have seen genealogies where people have made a link to a famous person without any proof simply because they wanted to be related to a famous person. I also have seen many genealogies that contain errors like children being older than their parents, children born after their mother has died, and children born before the mother could have children. Again, these submitted genealogies are a great place to start but do your own research and prove or disprove what they claim.
Information from genealogy forums, Web sites and other Internet resources are great because they can put you in touch with people working on your line. The information exchange on these forums is extremely beneficial. However, be careful. Information on these forums come from people, who may or may not know what they are talking about. Use them as another starting place for your continuing research.
All of these resources are a great place to start. They can give you ideas for new locations, resources and family members to search. Just be a little wary of what you are willing to accept as fact and verify all the information you gather from them.