Guide to Evaluating Web Sites
| Why Evaluate? | Evaluation Criteria | Evaluation Techniques |
The World Wide Web is an effective means of disseminating information, but the fact that anyone who has access to a Web server can create and maintain a Web site on any topic raises issues of quality and integrity not normally encountered in the medium of print, where the publishing process is governed by close editorial scrutiny. Explicit standards and editorial control are often absent in Web publishing. Also, some people delight in producing "spoof sites" containing misinformation that the inexperienced or unwary user might be tempted to accept as truth.
Because Web pages are not physical objects in the commonly understood sense, information in digital format is easier to alter than print. This makes information on the Web potentially more ephemeral (fleeting). The form and content of online information can be surprisingly fluid, for example, the appearance or "look" of a Web site may undergo frequent revision, a Web address (URL) may change without warning when the site is moved to another server, or a Web site accessible today may disappear tomorrow, leaving little record of its existence except the message "Not found" on the screen.
Here are a few tips for evaluating the quality and integrity of Web sites:
- How reliable is the information provided at the site? Have the facts been checked by someone other than the site's author or creator?
- In print publishing, the accuracy of a manuscript is usually checked by an editor prior to publication. Web publishing may bypass the traditional publishing process, leaving the viewer responsibile for verifying the accuracy of factual material. Before quoting from or basing an argument on information provided at a Web site, be sure to check the facts in at least one other source.
- Is the author or editor of the Web page qualified to write on the stated subject? What are his/her credentials (education, occupation, previous publications)? Beware of sites that do not identify the author or authors by name.
- What kind of organization hosts the Web site? Is the publisher (host) a reputable organization? Be wary of sites that do not identify the host by name.
- If the subject is controversial, is the information presented fairly (both pros and cons) or in a one-sided manner? Examine the content carefully for possible bias.
- Does the Web site promote (openly, craftily, or unconsciously) a specific product, service, or point of view? Is it an infomercial?
- Is the information provided at the site up-to-date or out-of-date? Currency is particularly important in the sciences and medicine where knowledge is rapidly changing, and in business and management where decision-making may depend on current, reliable statistical data.
- Is the site updated as often as necessary to keep abreast of new information on the topic? Is there an automatic "Refresh" feature?
- What topics (subjects) are covered by the Web site?
- Are the topics discussed or analyzed in-depth, or merely highlighted or summarized?
- If the author claims that coverage is comprehensive within the stated scope, does the site really cover all aspects of the topic? If coverage is selective, does the author state clearly the criteria used in the selection process?
- Examine the Web page to see if the author provides documentation identifying sources, usually in the form of notes or a bibliography at the end of the page, or on a separate page linked to the main content page. The format of notes and bibliography should follow accepted citation style for the appropriate discipline.
- When in doubt, verify factual information in at least one other source to detect possible discrepancies.
- Accuracy can be a problem when the factual record is scanty or incomplete, or when an issue is clouded by strongly held beliefs. Compare the scientific accuracy of these three Web sites:
- Creation in Conservapedia (www.conservapedia.com/Creationism)
- No Answers in Genesis (www.noanswersingenesis.org.au)
- Institute for Creation Research (ICR) (www.icr.org)
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (plato.stanford.edu/entries/creationism/)
- Creationism Controversy National Center for Science Education (NCSE) (ncse.com/creationism)
- Examine the Web site to see if the author(s) or editor(s) identify themselves and state their qualifications (education, occupation, years of experience, publications, etc.). Remember: you can use the print resource Contemporary Authors, located in the reference section on the first floor of the Ruth Haas Library, to research a writer's background. If authorship and qualifications are not explicitly stated in the Web site, is there a reason?
- Does the Web page indentify the institution or organization hosting the site? If not, the Web address (URL) may provide a clue to the type of host organization (.edu at the end of an address indicates that the host is an academic institution, .org that it is a nonprofit organization).
- Does the site claim to represent the official views or policies of a specific group, organization, company, or governmental agency? If so, does the site address (URL) support the claim?
- Is the host a legitimate, reputable organization? The Encyclopedia of Associations, available in print in the reference area of the Haas Library, can be used to research nonprofit organizations. The librarians at the Young Business Library (203-837-9139) can be of assistance in researching commercial enterprises.
- Is contact information for the author and sponsor provided on the Web page? If not, ask yourself why the author or host does not wish to encourage feedback from visitors to the site.
- Be especially vigilant in the case of Web sites hosted by commercial Internet service providers (AOL, etc.). The author may be self-publishing because no institution or organization is willing to host the site.
- In your opinion, which of the following Web sites speaks with greatest authority on the topic "smoking and health"?
- TobaccoFree.org (www.tobaccofree.org)
- Smoking & Tobacco Use (www.cdc.gov/tobacco)
- In Defense of Smoking Heartland Insitutute (www.heartland.org/ideas/smokers-rights)
- How about these sites on cloning?
- Human Cloning Foundation (www.humancloning.org)
- Human Cloning (cbhd.org/content/human-cloning)
- Cloning Fact Sheet (www.genome.gov/25020028)
- When was the Web page first published and last updated? If these dates are absent, you have no way of knowing whether the information is current or outdated.
- If links to Web pages at other sites are included, are they still functional and relevant to the topic?
- If a message indicates that the site is no longer being updated, be cautious about using information that may no longer be correct.
- How current is the information provided at these two Web sites:
- USA Today Money - Markets (www.usatoday.com/money/markets/)
- U.S. and World Population Clock (www.census.gov/popclock/)
- How important is currency for these two sites?
- Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (www.bartleby.com/100)
- Timeline of Art History (www.metmuseum.org/toah)
- Does the actual content of the site coincide with the author's stated purpose? If not, does it fall short of the author's claims?
- If you find that important aspects of the topic are not covered, does the author explain why?
- If portions of the site are "under construction" does the author indicate when they may be completed?
- Assume that you are looking for the best Web site providing a list of Internet resources in the field of history because you want to bookmark it for personal use. Which of the following sites do you feel is the most comprehensive?
- WWW VL History Central Catalogue (vlib.iue.it/history/index.html)
- World History Compass (www.worldhistorycompass.com)
- The History Page (www.scholiast.org/history/)
- Best of History Web Sites (www.besthistorysites.net)
- Is the content well-organized? If the site is extensive, does it have an internal index? Is search capability provided within the site?
- Does the overall design of the site make the content easier to comprehend? Is the design graphically pleasing or does it lack visual harmony and appeal?
- Does the site include automatic pop-up windows that distract attention from the main content and waste the user's time? Does intrusive advertising crowd the main content?
- Does the text follow accepted rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage?
- Which of the following sites do you feel is better-designed?
- Anthropology Resources on the Internet (www.aaanet.org/resources)
- General Anthropology WEB Resource Pages (eclectic.ss.uci.edu/~drwhite/anthro.htm)
- Library of Congress: Anthropology (www.loc.gov/teachers/additionalresources/relatedresources/ss/anthro.html)
Please send your comments to Joan Reitz, Haas Instruction Librarian, Western Connecticut State University.
Last updated on May 14, 2015