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How to Evaluate a Website When Doing Research

written by: virtualibrarian • edited by: Trent Lorcher • updated: 6/6/2012

Sure, you can find just about any type of information online - but how do you know if it's accurate? Learn how to evaluate the websites you're searching to make sure they're trustworthy.

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    Why Evaluate?

    If you are like most students (and even most teachers!), when you ned to research a topic, the first place you go is online. This is fine - in fact, the most current, up-to-date information you can find is likely to be on the internet.

    The problem comes when you find way too much information, each webpage seeming to contradict the next one. How do you determine just which web pages have the correct information? This guide will help you to learn how to evaluate a website.

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    Check Identification

    Ask that website "May I see some I.D.?" While it may not answer back (embedded interactive voice technology not having reached that point yet), you should be able to see the information you need, if you know where to look.

    First of all, does the web page give the name of the sponsoring organizattion, such as the Mayo Clinic or the Cincinnati Zoo? if not, how about the name of the individual who created the page? And what about that person's qualifications? "James Reilly, MD" = good; "Purplefairy, unicorn lover" = probably not the type of source your teacher wants you to cite.

    A good source will probably also include a date (recent), information on when the page was last updated (also recent), and contact information for the website owner, which is typically found through a link at the bottom of the website.

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    What Is On the Page?

    Sure, you found some of the information you need, but the rest of the page content can help you tell just how valid or accurate that information may be.

    Does the page have a title that in any way reflects the information you found there? If you are researching tigers and the page title is something like "A Day in the Life of a Zoo Tiger", good. If it's "Fierce Animals You May Encounter in a Role Playing Game" - not good.

    How about a bibliography? If the page includes links to the sources of the information it contains, this is a good sign, and it may enable you to double-check for accuracy yourself.

    Can you detect any particular bias to the page? You may find information that looks as if it comes from a medical study, but when you do a little more reading, you will see that the page is geared towards urging you to buy a particular product. If all of the links seem to lead you to a shopping cart, be very suspicious of any information you find there.

    Excess advertising is also a red flag. Most websites contain ads these days, but sometimes scholarly, trustworthy sources still tend to be commercial-free.

    Finally, take a look at the domain name. Although there is now, for all intents and purposes, no dfference between ".com" and ".org" sites (originally the former were commercial, while the latter were reserved for nonprofits), sites ending in .edu (university) and .gov (government agency) contain information that is, for the most part, verifiable.

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    How Does the Page Look?

    While an ugly page may be a good source of information, most websites offering valid content do make some effort to keep their content user-friendly. A good page will probably be easy to read, without an overly-complicated background that interferes with the text and links.

    Any images and icons should be helpful, leading you to further useful content. Graphics should load quickly, background music (if any) should include an easy option for turning off. Links should be live, not broken. If the page looks as if it hasn't been touched in the past 10 years, do not rely on it for obtaining current information!

    Even if you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, there are times when you do need to evaluate a website by how it looks and feels. If something's a bit "off" - remember, there are billions of other websites out there, no need to settle for anything less than the best.

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