So what can you trust? For the most part you can trust the date and place the census was taken and trust that the people you find are represented where they live (at least, where they live most of the time).
Anything else is subject to question. That does not mean it is incorrect, it just means you need to verify what you find. Names, in particular, can be wrong, again, for many reasons; among them spelling -- the way it was written or spelled by the enumerator. Spelling was not an issue in earlier times, neither were name changes, the use of nicknames or initials only; children often assumed the name of their step-father, and the list goes on. Dates and places can also be wrong -- people often guessed at what they didn't know or made assumptions based on what they did know and, as researchers, we know assumptions can be wrong.
That said, census information is highly valuable in pinpointing a family in time and place, tracking families census to census, providing important clues, if not exact information, and in showing relationships.
So how to sort it all out?
The task of verifying may seem challenging. Knowing where to look for what information is sometimes a mystery. In general terms, you want to determine "best available" record for the time period. For example, you might ask yourself the following questions: What records are best before birth and death records were recorded? or Where can I find birth (marriage, death) dates? What records reveal place of origin? What records reveal parentage? There are answers to such questions in our Genealogy Today Frequently Asked Questions. But to begin the process of verification, there are some steps you can take.
Compare across censuses.
One of the first things you can do is to compare information on the same individual from one census to the next through his or her lifetime: from the first census after birth to the last census before death. If you find people of the same name living in the same general area, you can compare your subject's personal and family member information, to be sure are following the right person. This comparison across census years lets you see what name was used, what birth date and birth place was given, etc., from one census to the next. It also allows you to highlight whatever discrepancies there may be, or see how information is supported one census to the next. Using a spreadsheet is a good way to make this comparison, with the census data in one column down the page and census years in one row across the page.
However, the census should not be your only point of reference.
Compare Across Multiple Documents
You will find the most confidence in your conclusion, when you have multiple sources all indicating the same thing -- maybe 3 or better yet, 4 sources.
You are not likely to find one document that can verify every piece of information, but one document might verify several pieces of information. The best evidence, of course, is found in original source documents (or a verbatim copy of such): birth, marriage, and death records. Other sources can be Family Bibles, oral histories and church records -- anything that is original and not compiled or abstracted or otherwise drawn from something else. Military records are another example. The WWI Draft Registration is an excellent resource for various types of information, containing primary information provided in person, by the individual on the date of registration. Other types of records might also be used such as record indexes, cemetery transcriptions, histories and biographies and other derivative source materials, keeping in mind such documents, by their nature, are also subject to error. Even so, if you have multiple documents all saying the same thing you can be more certain the information is correct. There is, however, a caveat to that statement: because there there is so much misinformation in genealogy resources, especially online, you can find the same incorrect information perpetuated many times over. So, unless well documented, you would not want to include user-submitted family trees or even published genealogies as among your sources for verification. Use them as leads, but not evidence.
The task of verifying census information may seem overwhelming at first, simply because there is so much to verify. But if you take it one step at a time, one data point at a time compared across multiple documents, you may find great success. And in the process of verifying, you might also discover important information that is new to you. Finally, once you have it documented, sharing your work will lend credibility to your research and benefit others.