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Evaluating Web Sites

Scope: The purpose of this page is to provide guidelines that may be used to determine the quality and accuracy of the information found on the World Wide Web.


Table of Contents

Traditionally, students setting out to write research papers could trust that the library materials they used were not unduly biased. An academic library's print, nonprint and electronic resources have been edited and checked for accuracy by scholarly organizations and publishers, then carefully evaluated by professional librarians for inclusion into the library's collection.

The information found on the World Wide Web has added a new dimension to selecting resources. Anyone can create a Web site. No one has evaluated the quality or accuracy of the information found on the Web before you come across it. Some Web sites are created by subject experts; for example, the University of Maryland Libraries home page and its associated pages are authored by librarians who are experts in the field of information. However, the vast majority of Web sites are created by non-experts.

It is important to keep in mind that just because information is published in a book or journal, or appears in a movie or on the Web, does not mean that it is true. You must take the time to evaluate the accuracy of the information. Researchers need to develop critical thinking skills in evaluating information, whether it comes from pre-filtered library materials or unfiltered Web sources.

Authority and accuracy

Anyone can create a Web site. It is important to find out the author's identity and his or her qualifications or expertise in order to determine the credibility and reliability of the information.

A Web site author can be a person (Jamie Oliver), a commercial company (.com), an academic institution (.edu), a government agency (.gov), a nonprofit organization (.org), a network of computers (.net), a military site (.mil), or a country-specific (.uk) site.

Ask the following questions:

  • Who is the author? Can you tell by the domain (e.g., .com or .edu) or Web address?
  • Is the information reliable? What qualifications or expertise does the individual or group that created the site have?
  • Does the Web site provide a means of communicating with the author or Webmaster (e.g., email or postal address, telephone number, etc)?

Purpose and content

Some sites provide links to information (e.g., About Our Organization or a Vision Statement) detailing the purpose in creating the Web site. The purpose of other sites might not be obvious at first. Take the time to thoroughly explore a Web site to determine if the information is mostly subjective (biased or opinionated), objective (factual), or mixed.

Ask the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of the Web site? (Look at the title and headings for clues.)
  • What is the purpose? To provide research and scholarly information? To provide educational or factual information? To entertain? To advertise, market or sell something? To advocate ideas? To persuade you? Or, is there another purpose?
  • Is there a link to a mission statement or "About Our Organization" page?
  • Does the site provide balanced, objective or factual information?
  • Does the Web site provide subjective, editorial or opinion statements? Is the site a forum for a personal, political or ideological bias?
  • Is the point of view presented in a direct manner, or is it presented in an unbalanced and unreasonable way? Are arguments well supported?

Currency

The currency or regularity of updating information is vital for some types information and less so for others. For example, Web sites that provide historical information, such as the presidential papers of George Washington, do not have to be updated as often as sites that provide news stories or stock market information.

Ask the following questions:

  • When was the Web site last revised, modified or updated?
  • Is the site well maintained? Are links current and working or do they lead to outdated pages and/or error messages?

Design, organization and ease of use

Design, organization and ease of use are important considerations. Web sites can provide useful sources of information; but if they are slow to load and/or difficult to navigate, search or read, then their contribution or usefulness will be diminished.

Ask the following questions:

Evaluating web sites: A checklist

To make sure you are on the right track while evaluating potential web resources, we have provided a checklist for you to follow.