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Research on the Free Web Tutorial: D. Evaluating Individual web sites

Can you use what you've found?

You've clicked through to a web site, but how do you know the page you've landed on is actually any good for your purpose?  

While there are a few exceptions in academia when "popular" site like Facebook or Blogger might be acceptable, most of the time you need resources with high-quality, reputable, and substantive information.  So take the following steps:

Gather identifying data:

  1. Look for links to "about us", "mission", "philosophy", "background", "history", etc.
  2. If you can't find such a link, try looking around the website's home page.  To get to the home page, find the Home link near the top of the page or truncate the URL as follows...
    • Delete the end characters of the URL, stopping just before each / slash (leave the slash).
    • Press enter to reload the page.
    • Continue doing this one slash-chunk at a time until you find something useful or you have reached the last chunk of the address (which is the main domain name server-publisher portion).
  3. Look for the last date updated and any other indicators of timeliness on the site. (How important this is depends on your info need.)
    • CAUTION: Undated "factual", numerical, or statistical data is no better than anonymous opinion.  Don't use it without external confirmation.

Ask basic questions:

  1. Who wrote the page (author or organization, institution, agency)?
    • Note: an e-mail address is not enough to tell you anything.  You're looking for evaluative information or a group with a known reputation.
  2. What is the purpose of the page?
    • inform, explain, persuade, entice, sell, share, disclose
  3. What is the relationship between the author and the purpose of the page?
    • Example: is hosted by StormFront, a white supremacy organization, so obviously this is NOT a good choice. (See note below on why we didn't link through to this site!)

Evaluate the quality of the information.   This is critical in academia!:

  1. What are the author's credentials to write on this subject?
    • The Center for Disease Control providing Influenza data?  Fabulous.  Sigmund Freud writing on psychology? Great.  Sigmund Freud writing on car repair? Not so much.
    • For academic use, require the same degree of credentials, authority, and documentation that you would expect from something published in a reputable print source.   If you where going in for life saving surgery, you would make sure that the doctor that was operating on you had the best credentials (and not a fake online degree from malpractice-lawsuit U).
  2. Are sources documented with footnotes or links?  Are they good edited sources (e.g. books or journal articles) and not just other unverified websites?
    • Note: If there are no references, footnotes, or bibliography bolstering the author's information, then it doesn't count as scholarly.  It might be good and credible and usable (like reputable journalism), but it is NOT SCHOLARLY.   
  3. Is there a clear slant or bias and/or do they address points of view other than their own?  Overall, is this page as credible and useful as what you'd find through a formally published source?
    • What links they provide to other resources (in addition to the sources they use for their own writing)?
    • Is what they're pointing to of high quality?

You don't need to consult this list every single time you look at a web site.  But if you have this type of expectation in the back of your mind, it helps inform your gut reaction of either "this-is-good" or "something's-not-quite-right," which may mean it is not suitable for academic level work.

Adapted with permission from the UC Berkeley - Teaching Library Internet Workshops page on "Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply and Questions to Ask"

The Note Below on Why We Didn't Link to the Site Above

We've provided links in other parts of the tutorial, so why did we refuse to link to the StormFront site?  Librarians and other information professionals frequently use it  to illustrate how Google works.  That site also happens to be horrible, offensive, inaccurate and full of wrong information.  And yet ...

It is regularly in the top ten Google search results for Martin Luther King or Martin Luther King Jr.  

It's in the top ten because of how Google gathers and ranks web pages.  The white supremacy organization that hosts that page convinced their membership and anyone else they could think of to link to the page.  Why?  Because one of the most important ranking pieces for the Google algorithm is how many OTHER pages link to a given page and how often they do so.  So guess what: we aren't going to link it, and we're not going to include the URL more than once so that it doesn't rise even further in the Google rankings.  Unfortunately, one of the reasons it persists in the top ten is because well-intentioned people use it as an example and link to it, thus perpetuating the high rank.  We're not going to do that.

Think about this example as you review your Google results list.  This is why you need to both evaluate that first set of results carefully and also go beyond the first ten results.


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"Formally" published material

If the web site you've landed on is actually "formally published" -- that is, edited and vetted by a reputable source like an article from Time or a PDF of a book chapter -- you evaluate it as if it were in paper form.  The evaluation process on this page is for things put on the web without a formal editing process, or if you're not sure where they come from.