Evaluating Websites

 

 

 

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A website is different than a published journal article because a website can be published with no review or editing. There are plenty of good sites on the web, offering a huge variety of information. It's often fine to use some of these sites, as long as you're not relying on them completely for all your information and the information you use is University-level research, reliable and valid. Even some unreliable sites are valuable, if used knowingly, appropriately, and within their context. The trick is to know when to use what kinds of sites.

Sites that are linked directly from the library website are usually scholarly and reliable. When you leave our site and look for your own resources on the web, use critical thinking skills (and common sense) to evaluate the information you find.

It's not as hard as you might think to evaluate a website. This page contains a few things you should look at, and some links to other sites that examine how to evaluate websites.

Reading a URL

If you understand how to read a url you can learn a lot about the source of your information.  

  • A URL is the address of the webpage.
  • It displays as the address in your browser, and usually begins with "http://". (Although many browsers don't show the http:// anymore, it's still part of the address.)

The url for the Trent Library homepage is: http://www.trentu.ca/library/index.htm.

Here's what the url tells us:

http:// www.trentu.ca /library/index.htm
The first part tells the browser that this webpage is written in a language that it can understand: hypertext transfer protocol.

The next section tells the browser where to find the server that holds the webpage, or who hosts it. This can also be called the domain.

The webpage must be on a computer (server) that is capable of serving up webpages to browsers, when asked.

The domain for Trent is trentu.ca and the www is the area on that server where the files are kept.

After the slash comes information about which folder holds the file for the webpage you want to access, and the name of the file.

It can be very long, depending on how the server is organized and how many folders and files there are.

In the case of the library, it's just one folder down in the Trent website. To get to some of the library's specific pages, you need a longer url: http://www.trentu.ca/library/help/databases/AnthroSource.htm.

Why is it helpful to understand this? Because the domain is important. It tells you who put this information on the web.

The type of domain helps identify the institution: 

.edu is used by educational institutions in the U.S.
.gov is used by government sites in the U.S.
.ca is used by Canadian sites
.com is used by commercial sites

Which types of sites are most likely to provide reliable information?

  • That depends on the information. Know what kind of site you're on, so that you can recognize its purpose.

Beware of the symbol: ~

  • Even within a reliable institutional site you can find personal webpages of individuals. The institution is NOT necessarily aware of, or responsible for, the content on these pages. Usually, these pages are designated by the ~ symbol.
  • Example: http://www.trentu.ca/www2/~janedoe/mypersonalviews.htm.
  • When you see that symbol you'll want to look carefully at the page; what's there is the work of an individual and not necessarily reflective of the institution.

Other Clues to Look For

There are other things you can note when you're looking at a webpage.

Who wrote it? Is the author clearly identified? What makes this person knowledgeable on the topic - is s/he an expert? What are his/her credentials and affiliations? Where does s/he work? Why should you trust him/her?
What is the goal of the site? Is it trying to convince you of something? Why? Is the purpose entertainment, monetary gain, political, or educational? Could that affect the type of information it's providing? Is it objective or is there bias? 
When was the page last updated? Is it being maintained, or was it put on the web and then forgotten? Is the information  outdated or is it still valid? Do links still lead to viable sites? If it's not being updated, how important is it?

Take a look at the layout of the page.

Who is it designed to appeal to? Does it look academic? Is it meant for primary school students? (Don't use information meant for primary school levels in a University-level paper.)

Does it contain advertising? Why would a scholarly site include profit-making ads? Who is profiting from these ads?

How did you get to this site?

A Google search will find any kind of site, and savy designers know tricks to get their sites to the top of your results list.

A search in a library-subscribed database will contain items purchased by the library for scholarly purposes. The library website itself links only to sites appropriate for research.

Did you follow an ad to get to it? If they've paid to advertise it, what does this tell you about it?

Hoaxes

Could the website be a hoax? There are plenty of hoaxes on the web: check out:

There are whole websites about hoaxes; just Google "hoax" and see what you get.

In case you didn't figure it out:

  • "DMHO" is water: H2O. Apparently it's dangerous and should be banned. At the bottom of the page it says, "Note: content veracity not implied". Even the ads are funny - they're selling a one-sided surface and zero-volume bottle. If they use complicated language, they look more knowledgeable and people are less likely to question it.
  • The drug "havidol" doesn't exist, but they made up a condition with a very long name that could apply to anyone.  Read the drug name as "have it all".
  • The male pregnancy page is full of animated gifs and altered images; the authors are artists (they say so), not scientists. That man has been pregnant for at least a decade now, despite the seemingly real-time heartbeat monitor of the baby. Does the correct date and time give you confidence in the site?  It's just a clock that anyone can add to a webpage.

Bias

Look for bias on a website.

  • If there is advertising, look at who's advertising. Is the website going to say anything that might cause it to lose advertising?
  • What is the goal of the site? If it is to convince you of something, is it going to be impartial and provide both sides of an argument?

If it is biased, it doesn't always mean you can't use it. But you'd better look for opposing arguments or follow up on some of the facts and sources listed, to ensure that they're legitimate.

For an example of a website with a bias, look at http://www.themeatrix.com/. What does this site want to accomplish?
More Resources

Many academic libraries provide webpages and tutorials on evaluating websites. Here are some interesting ones:

Credible Sources Count From Vaughan Memorial Library at Acadia University. An interesting interactive tutorial.
Evaluating Web Information From Queen's University. A webpage with categories and a diagram explaining urls.

If you're in doubt about the legitimacy of a website, you probably shouldn't use it. Your common sense is telling you something. If it's easy to find, read, and use, it's tempting to rely on it as a source without considering its scholarship or reliability. However, your professors will check your sources, and if it's not what they want you to find, you'll be graded accordingly.

Always use at least some of the Library's resources.

  • We pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to provide you with access to them because they're the best sources available. Find them on our website.
  • If you ignore them because they're difficult to use, you are doing yourself and your research a great disservice.

Feel free to ask at your library for help in evaluating a website or in using a library resource.  See our Ask Us! page for contact information.