Evaluating Websites

I’m about to drop some serious knowledge on you that may make your head explode:Google does not always provide you with reliable results, websites, and information.

Yeah, I said it; so what? Take a few moments to put your head back together…

Done? Good, now let me explain.

When looking for information online, one of the first places most of us go is to google.com. Google is a great resource for finding information on the Internet; type in a few words, hit search, and up pops pages upon pages of results. The trick, then, is to find the good information. Unfortunately, many of us just look at the first few results and use that, but is it the best information coming from the most reliable sources? Oftentimes, this is not the case. Google returns many unreliable, dodgy, and just plain bad links, so it is up to the user (YOU!) to determine if a resource, website, or result is appropriate for your research. This is where I come in and show you what to look for and how to evaluate websites, so listen up.

When evaluating websites, we want to check for these four criteria:

1. Authority
Anyone can create a website; you, me, that dude that hangs out at the gas station all day and smells like cabbage, so it is important to identify who is authoring/creating a website and what qualifications, credentials, or expertise they may or may not have. Would you rather cite a website on astrophysics that was created by an actual astrophysicist or by some unknown and unnamed person on the Internet.

A website author can be a person (Dalai Lama), a commercial company (.com), an academic institute (.edu), a government agency (.gov), a non-profit organization (.org), a military site (.mil), or a country-specific site (.ca / .uk).

Ask yourself these questions when looking for the authority of a website:

  • Who is the author of the website? Does the domain or address give you clues? Is it clearly identified on the site?
  • What are the author’s credentials? Are they an expert on the subject you are researching?
  • Is the website sponsored or created by an organization? Are they reliable?
  • Is there contact information (email, address, phone number) for the author/creator?

2. Content
Content refers to what is found on the website. This can include text, images, links, downloadable files, and many other things. The content tends to be the reason you are actually using the site so you want to be sure it is good information. Since many websites do not have editors, fact checkers, or reviewers, it is up to the user to determine if the content is relevant and of value to your needs.

Here are some questions to ask when determining if the website’s content will be useful:

  • Does the website provide information that is relevant to your needs?
  • Is it laid out clearly or are you having a difficult time finding information?
  • Is it thorough in its coverage of your topic or does it just give you basic information?
  • Are there numerous grammatical errors, misspellings, or other mistakes? Sloppy presentation can indicate sloppy information.

3. Purpose
For most websites, there is a purpose for it existing. Is there a certain subject it wants to explain? Does it aim to educate people on a particular topic? As I mentioned with authority, anyone can create a website. On one hand, this is a great thing because it provides a platform for people’s ideas, knowledge, and opinions. On the other, since very few websites have fact checkers or editors, the Internet is full of highly opinionated, biased, and skewed information. This is especially true of websites dealing with hot-button topics like politics and religion. It is important, then, to look carefully at websites to determine their purpose; are they trying to convince the reader of their point of view? Are they only give the reader one side of the story?

Here are some things you will want to look for when determining the purpose of a website:

  • Is there a link to a mission statement or an “About Us” page?
  • Does the website provide factual information with references given or does it just give opinions?
  • Are all sides of a topic presented equally or is the information skewed in one direction?
  • Are there paid advertisements or sponsors on the website?

4. Currency
No, not dollah billz, yo. When talking about websites, currency refers to how current the information is or how often it is updated. The currency or regularity of updating information is important when looking at certain types of information and less so for others. Web sites whose focus is on history, like the great battles of WWII, do not need to be updated as regularly as websites that host news stories.

Some things to look for when figuring out the currency of a website:

  • When was the page last updated? This is usually found at the bottom of the page.
  • If links are provided, are they current? Do they work? Broken links can mean that a page has not been updated in a while.

Once you have applied these four criteria to a website, you should be able to determine if it is appropriate to use as a source.

Oh, and dig this; here is a great resource about evaluating the credibility of a source. You should probably check it out because it is ah-mazing!

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