Guide To Evaluating Website Info & Resources
The Internet offers a wealth of information on every conceivable topic at the user’s fingertips. Not all information found on the Internet is equally reliable, objective, current, and authoritative because there are no guidelines or monitoring of published information. Some of the information on the Internet is published by scholars or professional authorities in a particular field, but other websites offer the personal opinions or untested hypotheses of individuals. Internet users should exercise caution when reading and using online information, whether that information is used for a research paper, to make health decisions, to support a business proposal, or to form one’s own opinions on an issue.
When evaluating a website, first determine the author’s purpose in writing and publishing it. Sites may be intended as entertainment, to promote and sell products or services, to educate on a topic, to persuade readers, to give information on an institution or government agency, to provide information or research findings on a topic, to inform readers of current news, for an individual’s personal enjoyment or to relate personal opinions, or to trick and defraud user by effecting a hoax. To determine a website’s purpose, look to the site’s title, main headings, and mission statement or “About the Author” pages for implicit or explicit statements of purpose. Evaluate the language of the page for biased statements, unreliable or unbalanced sources, and editorial language that may indicate intent to persuade rather than to educate.
Evaluating a website’s authority means determining the author’s identity and credentials. The author or authoring organization’s name or copyright information usually appears at the top or bottom of a page. The site’s “About the Author”, Mission Statement, or “About Us” pages may provide information on the author or organization’s educational and professional credentials and affiliations, which the reader should verify by seeing what other trusted sources say about the author. If an author claims to be a university professor, for example, the reader may visit the university’s own website to look for the individual’s name in a department roster. After determining the author’s credibility, decide if the publisher of the site is reliable. A website’s domain extension (.com, .org, .biz, .gov, .edu, .mil) gives clues about the publishing organization: “.com” and “.org” names are available to any individual, company, or group, “.biz” is used by businesses,“.edu” extensions are exclusively for educational institutions, “.gov” is only for U.S. government use, and “.mil” is restricted to U.S. military sites. Domain extensions do not guarantee the objectivity or currency of the site’s information, but generally establish that the information is reviewed or supported by the sponsoring organization.
No information source is completely unbiased and objective, but identifying a site or author’s biases allow the reader to evaluate how those biases affect the information presented. A factual tone, lack of emotionally manipulative language, a balanced presentation of arguments, and consistency of facts within the article and the website indicate a more objective source. The organization that publishes the website also provides information on the site’s objectivity: articles published by advocacy organizations or businesses that sell products or services may not present a complete or accurate picture of the opposing side of an argument or a competing product. Carefully weigh the known biases of the author or publishing organization against the information presented and look for conflicts of interest before deciding if the information is reliable.
A website may be authoritative and objective but may not be appropriate for your purpose. When using web content in the classroom, make sure the content and reading level is suitable for the students’ age level. If the website will be a source for a research paper, decide if the site meets your instructor’s guidelines for a scholarly source: peer-reviewed publications available online, such as academic journals, would be appropriate for research papers while a personal website would not. Decide if the organization publishing the information adds to your paper or presentation’s goal or detracts from it. The information from an advocacy website may be accurate, but the organization’s bias may detract from your paper’s objectivity.
Not all websites are regularly updated or revised. Some websites state that they are archive copies or that they are no longer updated as of a certain date, but many do not. Informational, news, and educational Internet sites may or may not contain current and updated information. Determine if the page is current by looking for a date or time at which it was last updated. For news publications, this information appears near the story’s headline. For non-news sources, check the bottom or top of the page for the date of the last revision. If the site does not provide information on its last revision, check any links contained in the page. Numerous dead links may indicate a website that has not been revised recently. Journals, archives of newspapers or magazines, and academic papers or books available online are not updated or revised. The date of publication should be prominently displayed on these resources. The currency of the information is important when researching current events, events in the recent past, or new scientific discoveries or techniques because new information may have become available between the date the website was created and the date it was accessed.
Websites should be clear about their purpose, content, credentials, and references. The site’s author should use a real name, as should the publishing organization. Contact information, such as telephone numbers or e-mail addresses, should be easily accessible. Websites should document their facts and reference other sites, persons, or organizations to credit them for the information they use. Websites that contain the same word-for-word content of other websites may not be reliable: they may be plagiarized. Websites that conceal their true purpose (such as advocacy sites that masquerade as impartial educational sites) or content (such as sites lure users with the promise of certain information but instead funnel them into advertising or sales sites) are not reliable.
Websites should present their content in a visually pleasing and easy-to-follow way. Text should be legible, formatted for easy viewing and free of spelling errors, typos, and word usage errors. Difficult to read fonts, text colors, or backgrounds detract from the user’s experience. Graphics, both animated and still, should add to the page without distracting from the user’s ability to read the text and find important links. Advertisements should be clearly labeled and should not distract a reader from the main content of the page or be confused with page content. The site’s content should be logically organized with headings and subheadings and internal links should be easily visible. Users should be able to navigate through a site to find the desired information easily and quickly with a minimum of clicks.
For a website to be a useful and reliable resource, users must be able to access it quickly, easily, and dependably. Websites should load without long delays. Sites should be available consistently, without long or frequent down-time. Links, both internal and external, should be live and dead-end links should be nonexistent or minimal. A fee-based site should allow non-members access to partial content to allow users to decide if the content meets their needs before purchasing it. Free sites that require usernames and passwords should have a reason for controlling access and not require the submission of excessive private information to access content. Graphics-heavy sites should have alternatives to animation and should prompt users to download any necessary plug-ins. Websites should have text-only alternatives for visually impaired users.