Evaluating Web Sites

In general, anyone can publish on the web. Unlike as with traditional print resources, many web sites rarely see an editor or reviewer. There are no standards for content on the web, though there are technical requirements for posting web sites (use of specific protocols, html, etc.). The challenge then is determining which sites provide 'good' and sound information.

Listed below are five basic evaluation criteria that can help in identifing so called quality web sites. A quality web site in this context is defined as a site that provides fairly reliable information and that meets most of the criteria outlined below.

One should distinguish between online information that is

  1. available for free through a common search engine and
  2. information found through a propriety databases (like the library's online periodical indexes).

In the first case, there are no checks or balance. Quality research will be intermingled with less reliable sources. In the second case, information has been collected, organized and made 'searchable'. For the most part these resources have undergone a review process and met certain quality standards. The criteria outlined below will focus on the first case: free information found on the web using a common search engine.

5 Basic Evaluation Criteria:

  • Authority
    Who is the author of the web site (or the organization behind the site)? Better web sites will include information on who has created the site, what their authority is in regards to the content of the site. Look for an 'About Us' section on the site. Information found on sites where there is little or no information on who is behind the site should be treated very carefully (see the general rule below). Furthermore, is the author an authority on the subject matter, is the information backed up by references?
  • Audience
    For whom is the site created and what is the intention of the site? Is the site created for high school students, for consumers, or for other scholars in a given field? Is the site on the web to inform, to promote, to sell, to persuade, etc.?
    A good indication is the language used on the site: is subject specific jargon used, or is the site filled with spelling mistakes? Better sites will have proof read the content and language on the site will be appropriate to the subject matter.
  • Currency
    Has the site been updated recently? Though the information on a given site may be correct there might be more current information available. Also look for when the site was created: The site may have been created many years ago and only received minor revisions since thereby making the content outdated. Do all the links work? Sites that are less well maintained will have numerous dead links.
  • Bias
    This may be one of the more trickier criteria to evaluate. Especially web sites on controversial topics will frequently disguise their bias, mask fiction as fact, or just try to persuade you in particular direction. In this case, it helps to become knowledgeable about the topic first using a variety of reliable sources. Better sites will provide a position statement or outline their intentions.
  • URL and Site Domain
    Take a closer look at the URL of the web site. So-called .com sites maybe less trustworthy than .edu sites. However, .com sites may also have good and solid information whereas a .edu site may be a student project that has not been evaluated.. Though this is the least reliable criteria to use in evaluating web sites, understanding a given URL may add one more component to the picture that is being created. Become familiar with the common domain extensions (see the Related Links). 

General Rule
Always try to verify any information you find on the web against a non-web based source. Though this rule is applicable for any piece of information regardless of format or origin, freely available information on the Internet should be treated with the greatest caution. Unlike with printed materials no editorial checks are necessary to post a site - anyone with Internet access and a basic html editor can create a web page with content of their choosing.

Also keep in mind that some sites may fulfill all the criteria above and yet the actual content may be factually wrong (either intentionally or unintentionally). Use good judgement, and be critical.