The New Digital Dilemma: Fact or Fiction?

5 Essential Tips for Evaluating Websites

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by: Ufuk Yağcı

According to Internet Live Stats, there are over 1 billion websites on the World Wide Web today. With current tools, almost anyone can create a website. Website owners can write, print or publish anything they would like without worrying about the consequences. With the massive information that we are interacting with each day, it is a daunting task to determine what is credible. Here are five quick tips for evaluating websites.

1. Check the Web Address

The first thing you should do is look at the web address for determining credibility. Each web address has a three letter suffix. The suffix “com”, for example, represents commercial companies and does not guarantee the reliability of the website. The following suffixes are more reliable web addresses.

gov or mil Governments and military.
org Primarily used by non-profit groups.
edu or ac Accredited higher education schools.
sch or k12 Accredited K-12 schools.


Is this a personal page?

Even if the web address has one the suffixes listed above, you should also check if it is a personal page. You can check for the personal sites by looking at a personal name (e.g., jwarner or warner) following a tilde (~),  percent sign (%) or the words “users”, “members” or “people”. Personal pages are not necessarily bad, but there is a need to investigate the author carefully.

Is it published by an entity that makes sense?

If it is not a web address with the above reliable suffixes, please check if you have heard of this entity before. For example “www.nytimes.com” is a recognizable news site.

2. Check the Authors

Find out, who the author is. You can find information on the author by looking for information under “About us” or “Philosophy” or “Background” or “Biography”. Try to answer the following questions:

  • Who wrote the pages?
  • What are the author’s credentials on the subject?
  • What else has the author written?
  • Does the author represent a certain political, cultural or social group, organization?

3. Check the Dates

It is important that the information that you are accessing is up-to-date. Please analyze the website and try to answer the following questions:

  • Look for the date “last updated”. This information is usually at the bottom of the web page.
  • If this is a publication, check when it was first published. This information is uually at the top of the page.

If you cannot find the date of a website, do a right click and click on ‘inspect’ or find ‘properties’ to check the date.

4. Check the Purpose and Accuracy

Knowing the motive behind the website’s creation can help you judge on the reliability of the content and whether the information provided has been altered or manipulated in some way to change the meaning.  You can check the “about” link or look at the disclaimers to find information about the purpose of the website.

Ask the following questions:

Why was the page put on the web? Try to understand the agenda and analyze the website taking into consideration the following questions:

Was the page put to inform or give facts? Is it an educational resource? Was the information put to explain, to persuade something? Is there an economic value to this site, are they trying to sell something? Does this website fill any other personal, professional or social needs?

For example, if the purpose of the website is to persuade, then you should examine the material very closely before accepting it for a fact.

Can this be ironic? Satire or parody? Think about the “tone” of the page. Is it humorous or is it a parody? Is it exaggerated? Are there outrageous photographs or unlikely images? snopes.comis a website that collects urban legends and Internet rumors. You can best use this site as a reference for validating photos.

Is the information fact or opinion? Did they cite their sources? Check some of the references.

Crosscheck information with at least two other sites. Can you find the similar information in other reliable sources?

Are there any reviews about this publication or website? Other evaluations can help you determine the credibility of the information.

What is the intended audience? Who is the website address for?

5. Check Relevance & Context

Even if the information on the website is trustworthy, you still need to check if it is relevant to your needs. Try to understand the relevance by asking the following questions:

How is the information relevant to your research? The website may be cool, but is the content appropriate for your research needs?

Are the time period and geographic region relevant to your research?

The readability of the website plays an important role for context. If your content is too small or pale and it is not possible to read them well, then there’s no way for your message to get across.

Here are some questions to run your website content through to evaluate its quality:

Check general format and outlook

  • Are the fonts readable?
  • Are there spelling errors? Spelling and grammar mistakes probably mean that the web page is not trustworthy.
  • Are there photos that are big or out of proportion?
  • Does the website look professional?

Check consistency

  • Do all the links work?
  • If there are links to other pages as sources, are they reliable sources?
  • Are the links well chosen, well organized?
  • Do links represent other viewpoints?
  • Is this site good for some things and not good for other?

Conclusion

If you still have some doubts, trust your instincts and make further inquiries. If something does not look right, it probably is not. If you are still having second thoughts on the validity of the website, please go back and revisit the questions listed above.


Additional Reading

Purdue Online Writing Lab: Evaluating Sources: Overview

Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything: Critical Evaluation of Information


References

Branham, C. (1997, March 27). Evaluating web pages for relevance. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.slu.edu/colleges/AS/ENG/cai/research/page01.html

Harvard guide to using sources. (2017). Evaluating Resources. Retrieved from http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page346375

Quackit. (2017). Country domain extensions. Retrieved from http://www.quackit.com/domain-names/country_domain_extensions.cfm

Quackit. (2017). Domain name extension definitions. Retrieved from http://www.quackit.com/domain-names/domain_name_extension_definitions.cfm

SEQ Legal. (2017).Website Disclaimer. Retrieved from http://www.seqlegal.com/free-legal-documents/website-disclaimer

12 thoughts on “The New Digital Dilemma: Fact or Fiction?”

  1. Some great suggestions here for critically analysing websites. I am going to share some of these ideas with my teacher librarian collegues and students.
    I have noticed that my security settings on my computer will often flag or warn about possible threats to my computer depending on the site. It also gives my an opportunity to provide feedback on whether the site is of value or not. Do you think that this type of assistive function in the antivirus software is beneficial, or is it just a gimic to make users think it is of more value than it truly is?
    I wonder, if after looking through the criteria you have listed and seeing a site that is inaccurate or malicious, would you suggest reporting it to an organization like google as a potential threat? Are there other online “watchdogs” to which one could send suspect URLs?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are two aspects of analyzing websites. The first one is for security and malware and this is what your computer is detecting. The second one is the validity of the information which this post is about.

      Malware is short for “malicious software”. Malware is specifically designed to damage or access control of a computer without the user’s knowledge. There are different types of malware like worms, spyware, viruses, etc. The malware was invented as practical jokes and turned out to be destructive within the years. Today malware is created through forced advertising, spyware (stealing sensitive information), or spreading email spam. The best protection from malware is to be cautious when surfing the Internet and staying away from suspicious websites and being careful about opening email attachments that you receive from unrecognized people. Malware is protected through antivirus programs that are continuously updated. In general, there are 4 categories and the websites are categorized as malicious, suspicious, potentially suspicious and clean. In this case, your computer warns about the possible threats for sites with the help of an antivirus program or online website scanner tool. This is easy to detect.

      AS far as verifying information, this has many options. Some parts of the website can be valid and some may be not so trustworthy. The author may not be an expert in the area. It is possible that the information is not up-to-date or it is possible that the information provided is a bias. Therefore, I think very difficult to categorize sites about the validity of information. Moreover, a tool that does that for you, will stop from thinking critically and analyzing. We need to make use of every website and aspect and continue to analyze. I also tell my students to make use of Wikipedia. They use Wikipedia for finding keywords and they use those keywords for making an effective research on other sites.

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  2. What’s Going down i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered
    It absolutely useful and it has helped me out loads.
    I am hoping to give a contribution & assist different customers like
    its aided me. Good job.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great topic to review and discuss, do you use specific guidelines or instruct your students on how to validate and review online content for authenticity? I discuss this with my class periodically, but they are adults and the topics are not specifically those that would attract inaccuracies, but when we are looking for data and reports we discuss the importance of validation and thorough reviews. Your resources are very helpful, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Shanon! Yes, I start teaching this for Grade 5’s in the primary school. I have been teaching this as an introduction to research techniques using technology. I make use of educational fake sites that have been developed and I use problem-based learning techniques. There is a site called allaboutexplorers.com that was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet with fake information on some of the explorers. I choose an explorer out of this site and ask the students to make a research on this person and find out 5 interesting and important facts about him. I ask the student to make use of at least two sites. Then I write down the URL for this fake site and tell them one of their references should be this site. I sit back and watch how each group starts arguing about which fact is true or not. Then, each group presents their solution and we have in-depth discussions on validation of information. I also introduce them with some great videos that were intentionally prepared by certain companies for April Fool’s Day. A picture is worth a thousand words and I think that number even doubles with videos. I play the video. Self-driving bicycle is a great example for this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkQBIaZX0L4
      Then we watch how this video was produced: https://goo.gl/aks7Q2
      I think looking at real examples helps a lot. Then I assign websites for each student for evaluation. Half of the list consists of real sites with interesting and different information, half of them is fake. They work on them and we have in-depth discussions. We analyze the URL’s and go through each step that I have mentioned in my post. Here is the link to the list of sites I use: https://sites.google.com/a/mefis.k12.tr/ictwithmsufuk/sitesforfakeorreal

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  4. While students are being taught from an early age the concept of plagiarism and its negative consequences, I think it’s difficult at times for students to discern between reliable sources of information and less credible types of information. Due to convenience, the internet has become a one-stop shop for information. Even websites that have been proven to be accurate and legitimate can still contain information that is questionable and hard to decipher. I think the first line of defense begins with arming students with critical thinking skills necessary to decipher between what is “good” and “bad” on the internet. Getting students to become deep critical thinkers when it comes to the internet is a whole different story.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Colin. I totally agree with the fact that we need to arm the students with critical thinking skills. Though I also think that the process of deciphering between the good and bad can only be achieved by taking the five aspects of evaluating websites. They will become deep critical thinkers as they practice this out.

      Like

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