With the right set of evaluative tools, you should have no problem evaluating the sources you find on the Web. Though many of the standards for evaluating sources are the same for web pages as they are for hard copy material, there are some other tricks for evaluating Web sites as well:
- Domain Names
What is the domain name? Was the site posted by or is it affiliated with an organization that you trust, for instance, an accredited university or respected organization? If you are not familiar with the organization, the address ending can give you a clue. If it is a.com site you know it is a commercial Web site. If it is .edu you know it is an educational institution. However, .edu is only American universities and colleges. Many endings are country specific (.ca, .uk, .be), which means they will give very little guidance as to the credibility of the Web site but will tell you where they are posted. Become familiar with these different endings to evaluate Web sites.
Along with all the standard ways of identifying the credibility of the author (credentials, reputation, affiliation, etc.), sometimes simply finding the author of a Web page is a challenge. Usually, no author means no credibility, but sometimes a Web page is buried in the site and truncating the URL will give you the information you need. For more on URL’s see below. If you have found the author but cannot find any credentials, run a search on their name in a search engine (this only works if their name is unique).
If you are unfamiliar with the topic it can be difficult to assess the accuracy. However, look for facts you do know and see if they are consistent with what you have learned, keeping in mind that some ‘facts’ are debated. See if sources of information are identified (citations) and look for typos and misspellings. Sloppiness in presentation suggests sloppiness in accuracy.
Determining the objectivity of a Web site can use many of the same methods as determining the objectivity of any source - Is the language neutral? What is the authors intention? Who is the audience? However, there are a few more clues available with Web sites. Look for advertising and ask yourself what other sites this site is linking to. Is there a mission statement on the Web site? Is the information there to sell something to you that calls the objectivity into question? (For instance, a research study on the benefits of sunscreen on the Coppertone Web site).
Look for the date when the information was posted or last updated. Once you have found a date, evaluate currency in the same way as with all information - Would it still be considered current for the area? If you can't find any dates anywhere a way to guess at the currency of the site is to try a couple of links and see how many are broken (i.e. don't take you anywhere or take you to other outdated sites). For information that needs to be current, avoid pages without dates no matter how useful the information. If the page is a primary text or another type of information where currency is not applicable, it is more important to evaluate the site using the other standards.
With Web sites it is often in your best interest to ask if the information offered is somehow unique and not offered anywhere else. If you can find similar material in another source that you know is credible, it is often better to go with the other source. The exception to this rule is when the information is offered by a credible source both through the Web and in paper format. For example, government information or journals that are offered online through the University Library.
If the page you have found is primary source material, make sure it has not been altered and that it is complete. If it is a translation, check the quality of the translation - usually best accomplished by checking the credentials of the translator.
Finally, if all the other criteria have been met, you may want to ask yourself how easy the site is to navigate, is it well organized and easy to use? If the Web site is going to be difficult to navigate and to retrieve the right information it will likely be a waste of time rather than the time saver the Internet is reputed to be, and can be when used correctly.
For more help in evaluating sources see Evaluating Resources (UC Berkeley).