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How to evaluate the validity of a website

Evaluating Website Trustworthiness

While it is important to evaluate the usefulness and validity of all resources before you use them; this is especially true for web sites. Since there are very few restrictions about who can author a web site and the content he or she can post on it, evaluating the validity and worth of a web site falls to the viewer. When evaluating a web site, here are some things to consider:

  • Authority and Accuracy: Who created the page? Reputable pages should identify the author(s) of the page, because that gives you an idea of the accuracy and reliability of the site's information. Is it someone who's an authority in the field? Is it an organization that is reputable? Is there an "About Us" link that tells you who's responsible for the content of the page, that person's credentials or authority?
  • Currency: When was the page last updated? Currency in web pages is an important issue when you're looking for up-to-date information. A regularly-maintained web page should have a date indicating when it was last modified or updated. Dates are often found at the beginning or end of a page or pages on the site.
    • Note: Sometimes the date found on a web page can be misleading. It could mean:
      • the last date it was updated
      • the date it was first made available via the web 
      • or the date it was first written.
  • Coverage: Does the page cover all the information it claims to cover? Coverage is sometimes hard to determine on web sites. Some things to consider: Does the site provide consistently complete information on all aspects of the topics it claims to cover? Is the coverage superficial or in-depth?
  • Advocacy vs. Objectivity: Is there any obvious (or subtle!) bias or agenda being promoted on the site, or does it represent all sides of an issue objectively? Be aware that web sites are often used to persuade viewers of a particular viewpoint on an issue or issues, and you may be getting only one side of the story. Sometimes that's useful, but in those cases, you need to know that advocacy rather than objectivity is the aim. Even reputable, or "official," sites may take a particular slant on an issue. If you're looking for a balanced presentation, be alert to obvious or even subtle biases.

Clues for Evaluation

These facets can be very difficult to evaluate.  Sources can be unreliable for a variety of reasons.  Some sites might be intentionally unreliable in order to promote a particular viewpoint or scam.  Other sites may be unreliable unintentionally, trying to provide solid information but falling prey to common cognitive biases that effect us all if we're not being careful.  So how can we tell the difference?  There are some things we can look for:

  • Does the page present more than one viewpoint?
  • Does the author present information as fact or as opinion?
  • Does the author or group sponsoring the site have a known agenda to promote?
  • Does the page have a statement about its purpose?
  • Can information on the site be confirmed through another independent source or sources?
  • What category of site is it? 
    • Looking at the domain name extension (.com, .edu, .org, .mil, .gov, .net, etc.) at the end of a URL (the http address of the site) can give you some clues as to the nature of a particular site. Those ending in .com are sponsored by commercial enterprises (often trying to sell you something or are sponsored by advertisers who are), .edu by educational institutions, .org by organizations (supposed to be used for most things that didn't fit another category), .mil by the U.S. Department of Defense (military), .gov by the U.S. government, and .net by networks.
    • While this can give us some indication of the reliability of the information, it should not be used to evaluate the truth of claims unsubstantiated by evidence.  All humans are prone to bias, even those working for generally reliable organizations.

If you need additional help in evaluating a web site's validity, contact the reference librarian at (252) 399-6502 or via email at reference@barton.edu.