Sunday, February 7, 2010

Academic Writing--How to Evaluate a Web Page


1. Introduction
The amount of information that is available on the internet can be overwhelming and daunting, an endless cornucopia of fact, opinion, banality, and chatter.

You can find information on every known topic on the planet, but not all of it is valid. In fact, most of what you read on the internet is just plain wrong or someone’s uninformed opinion (and not necessarily a fact). You might be tempted to use any information that you find on first search and be tempted to run with it—but never just settle for low-quality sources.

So proceed with caution. While there is a lot of information available, much of it is inaccurate, out of date, or just plain incorrect. Before you use any information, you need to evaluate the source to determine if the information is credible.

Areas that should be evaluated:
--Authority of the site’s webmaster and/or writer

--Accuracy of the site

--Objectivity of the site

--Type of coverage the site offers

--Currency of the site (for example, the last update should be recent)
Only after evaluating all these areas should you decide if you want to use the information that you have found.
2. Authority
Is this website a personal web page? Does the address include a term that includes the name of a free provider, such as Blogger (blogspot address)? If it does, or if it appears to be hosted by a service that allows people to post web pages for free, you may be looking at a page that someone created as a hobby. This is not necessarily a reason for automatically dismissing the information, but you should determine if the person who created the page is knowledgeable about the information he or she is posting.

Here is how to determine if a webmaster or writer is qualified to offer certain statements as fact:
• Does the domain name/URL reflect a well-known company name? This information is more likely to be of high quality and should be accurate, although it may be biased (More on objectivity later).

• Determine if the person or company’s name is mentioned on the website (other than in the URL).

• Is the domain an “expensive” generic or short intuitive term and NOT parked on a directory page, filled with ads? If so, it is more likely that the information contained within the site will be more accurate. Such highly sought-after domains are very expensive and have been known to sell on the secondary market for up to $x,xxx,xxx, so it is less likely to be a hobbyist/amateur page.

• Does the page reveal where the person teaches or works? Use a search engine, such as Google, Yahoo!, or Bing, to find information about the person (thus, you need to evaluate research sites by checking out the webmaster/owner and what he or she does for a living).

• Is the author an expert in the subject presented on the website, and is there a link to a professional page that verifies those credentials?

• Is the author biased toward one narrow viewpoint and/or has an ax to grind with another person or group? Is his/her viewpoint controversial and does not recognize other viewpoints that might be considered more valid?

• Does the author belong to a fringe or hate group? (Sometimes these hate mongers are very good at “masking” their true agendas and biases. It is only after you take a careful look at their sites that you realize the author/webmaster’s viewpoint. For an example of a hate site in “sheep’s skin,” see

• Check Whois (Domain name registration information): All domain registrars maintain registration of domain names, such as Network Solutions, Go Daddy, etc. A good neutral site to check:, which offers very detailed and accurate information about registered domain names.

• Is the domain owner using a proxy privacy service (such as Domains by Proxy) to “hide” his/her contact information? If so, this is a red flag, and you should probably view any information on the site with skepticism.
In short, you will need to determine if the webmaster/writer is truly an expert on the topic he or she is presenting.

What can the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) reveal to you?There are clues that can be found within the domain name itself.

The global Top Level Domains (gTLDs) include the following major extensions: .com, .net, .org, .info, .us, .biz, and .tel (among some lesser known ones), and you will find anything and everything on these gTLDs: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

However, official TLDs (such as .gov, .mil [now rare], and .edu) often contain better information than the gTLDs. For example, government websites (.gov, or .mil TLDs) typically contain high quality and accurate information. However, the information is produced by government agencies, which contains information written from their point of view. Therefore, you will need to evaluate if the information is biased towards that government’s point of view.

School websites (.edu) are a little trickier to evaluate. If the page is produced by a department or a professor, the information presented should be accurate and of good quality. However, some schools allow students to produce student websites, which should be evaluated as you would any personal page. These pages are often preceded by a tilde (~) in the URL after the .edu (for example,, but not always. If you are not careful, you may be using a student’s science project as a source, which may or may not be valid.

Country codes (.us, .de, .mk,, .es, .me, etc.), also known as country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs), are no longer primary indicators of validity and should be evaluated in the same light as gTLDs. In the past few years, country code registrars have opened registration to almost anyone who can pay yearly registration fee and not just government officials and official agencies. NeuStar, the registrar that operates the .us ccTLD, forbids private/proxy registration, and registrants must be citizens of the U.S. or own a business that has U.S. interests, but scammers always seem to find their way around these regulations. Each country regulates its own ccTLD, and some are more restrictive than others. Finding information for each ccTLD can be difficult, so, for your purposes, simply assume that ccTLDS have the same pitfalls as the gTLDs.

A note about .org: when the .org TLD was created, an entity had to be a registered non-profit organization. This is no longer true; this author owns several .org domains, and she has never had to provide non-profit documents to the registrar. Therefore, again, .org domains can no longer be automatically considered safe and valid.

SIDE NOTE: Beware of typo and lookalike domain URLs, such as or, when you intended to type in Scammers make big money on typo domains, either through email phishing (fishing for passwords via email or site links) or downloading malware (viruses, Trojan Horses, zombie programs, and unwanted programs that harm and/or slow your computer down) on unaware users’ unprotected computers.

For example, can you see the difference between “savvy” and “sawy”? In some fonts, “w” and “vv” are difficult to tell apart, especially when they are not side-by-side, so be cautious. “1” and “l” are NOT the same characters (The first is the number one, and the second is lower case L)! When in doubt, highlight the URL, place it in a word document, and increase the size—this will offer you a clearer picture. For “1” and “l”: highlight the term, and see what happens when you use capitalize the characters using the font feature: “1” and “l” becomes “1” AND “L.” Also, be aware of the difference between O (a letter) and 0 (zero). IPOD and IP0D are NOT the same (ipod and ip0d in lower case)!

Who wrote the page? You should find out who created (webmaster) the website and who wrote (author) the page content. They may or may not be the same person.

Information about webmasters and authors can be surprisingly difficult to find. Try to find any links that might reveal anything about the author or the site.

Check to see if the author or organization is listed on the bottom of the page in small print, usually in or near the copyright notice. Also look for links that say “About Us,” “Contact Us,” or “About this Page.”

If you can’t find a link that leads you to information about the organization that owns the site, look at the URL. Usually, a reputable organization or business will own the exact domain of its company name (between the www and the TLD (.com, .edu, .gov, or .org, .us, etc.).

For example, if you are looking for information on drunk driving, you might use “drunk driving” as a search term, which will bring up as an option.

This looks like it might be a good site, but you need to discover who is responsible for the website. Navigating to the page, you will discover that MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) is responsible for the page, its acronym at the top of the page and copyright notice at the bottom. If you look at the URL, you will see that MADD is part of the URL. However, if the search engine brings you to or, these domains may not even belong to MADD but could be “clone” pages filled with malicious code. A clone page, developed by “scraping” the code from the original page, is a replica of that page, often with added malicious code and/or viruses. Unfortunately, most original pages are easy to scrape, and even a non-tech person can do it easily.

In this case, if you check Whois, both .com and .net, along with the .org, appear to belong to the MADD organization (although neither .com nor .net URL redirects to homepage).

Always scan Whois for more details about the webmaster/owner, such as the Whois Record, Site Profile, Registration, and Server Stats. For some eye-opening facts about the racist webmaster who operates the so-called Martin Luther King site, see

Pay attention to the length of time a domain has been owned by one registrant. The search engines reward longevity, and it can be one indicator of validity (although some hate groups are tenacious and tend to hang around for a long time).

Truncating a URL. Search engines do not always bring you to a site’s homepage; they send you to its most relevant page, often a sub-domain URL, having to do with your topic, and, often, the landing page does not reveal what you need to know. To find out more information about the website, you need to “truncate” the URL.

For example, does not navigate to MADD’s homepage, but, rather, directs to a page that offers links to legal issues connected with drunk driving. To arrive at the homepage, simply delete the sub-domains (URL string AFTER .org, for example, “/Media-Center/Media-Library/Laws.aspx”). You will be left with, MADD’s homepage.

Reading sub-domains.There are two types of sub-domains.

The first type places the sub-domain after the Top Level Domain (TLD, such as .org). In, each “/” indicates a sub-domain. This particular URL has four sub-domains, which could be outlined in a hierarchy as follows (slashes enlarged and in red and bold for emphasis):
.org (1st level or Top Level Domain or TLD, also known as a domain extension)
http://madd (2nd level, not a sub-domain.)
A website does not actually need the “www” alias sub-domain, although some sites will not resolve without it because of incorrect settings in the owner’s domain and hosting panels.
/Media-Center (3nd level, 1st sub-domain)
/Media-Center (4rd level, 2nd sub-domain)
/Media-Library (5th level, 3rd sub-domain)
/Laws.aspx (6th level, 4th sub-domain)
The second type of URL, typically used by large corporations that often have thousands of pages in several categories that need to be indexed, presents its sub-domains in this manner:
(this does not resolve—this is just an example)

Note that there is no “www,” which is really just an “alias” sub-domain, in this type of arrangement. Each period (enlarged and in bold) between the terms indicates a sub-domain, for example:

http://Laws. (6th level, 4th sub-domain)
Media-Library. (5th level, 3rd sub-domain)
Media-Center. (4th level, 2nd sub-domain)
MediaCenter. (3rd level, 1st sub-domain)
(In this setup, each sub-domain needs a different name/designation, so, for this example, I eliminated the hyphen.)
madd.(2nd level, not a sub-domain and no “www”)
org (1st level or Top Level Domain or TLD, also known as a domain extension)
3. Accuracy
Does the site contain accurate information? To determine this, there are several points to consider, for example:
• Is the author qualified to cover the topic? If you can’t determine the author’s credibility or who sponsored the web site (see “Authority”), assume that the information is inaccurate and move on to another source.

• Scan the page quickly. Are there many misspellings, non-standard/awkward sentence structure, and/or faulty grammar? These can be indications that the information may not be accurate, although the webmaster and/or writer may be from a country where English is not the native language. However, on a credible website, country of origin and organization affiliation will be clearly disclosed.

• Read the page for content. At this point in the research process, you should have a basic knowledge of your topic. Does the material on the site fit in with what you have discovered found from other sources, including print sources?

• Are you able to verify the author/webmaster’s claims with known valid sources? If not, then don’t use it.
4. Objectivity
How objective is the website? While, a major drug company headquartered in New York City, New York, U.S.A., may offer some valuable information regarding the efficacy of its drugs, you should carefully evaluate the company’s claims. For example, perhaps you are doing research on drugs that can help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinsonism. You discover that Pfizer manufactures Benadryl® and claims that this drug is the best one on the market for Parkinsonism. Should you take that claim at face value? Probably not.

On the other hand, Pfizer’s page regarding chemical composition, dosage, usage, indications, and contraindications of its products will most likely be accurate because drug companies in the U.S. are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and factual information about their products must be accurate and up-to-date.

In essence, if a website is trying to sell you a product, you must question its objectivity in terms of deciding whether or not you should buy that product—or use the site as a source to make an argument supporting or disagreeing with that company’s claims. Of course that site is going to hype its products and do whatever it takes to make consumers buy their products, but hype does not equal fact.

Therefore, if you agree (or disagree) with Pfizer about its product efficacy, then you must find one or more accurate, detailed, and objective sources (and not competing drug companies) that support or disagree with Pfizer’s claims.

The same criteria should be applied to political, cultural, ethnic, and religious sites that offer a narrow view of the world. Any site that is slanted toward one viewpoint with no room for opposing viewpoints should be avoided or at least balanced with other sites that espouse the opposite viewpoint and some neutral sites that just report on the issue. While you may personally agree with, say, a religious site’s beliefs, your audience may not buy into your argument if your sources are not balanced and objective.

Even government sites must be considered carefully. For example, reflects the political slant of the current U.S. president and his party. Straight factual information will probably be okay, but content that pushes a certain point of view will need to be balanced by more objective sources.

In short, you will need to determine the objectivity of a website and what affect any biases are going to have on your argument.

How can you determine objectivity? You need to find out who developed and/or sponsored a website, and the best way to determine this: check the authority of the webmaster/author, which will bring you right back to section 2 (Authority).

Objectivity is one of the most difficult aspects to determine, but if you are serious about your research work, you must select your sources carefully, which means taking the time to understand the viewpoints of your various sources.
5. Coverage
Does the source adequately cover the information that you are seeking (sometimes the blurbs can be deceiving and meta-tags—codes that you cannot see, except in html—may be irrelevant and simply the fruits of the webmaster’s “keyword spamming” project)? Does it cover your topic in depth? Does the source try to offer a balanced coverage of the topic? Finally, does the website offer related links to other websites, even those that offer opposing viewpoints? If so, this website could be useful for your research, assuming that the site also passes the Authority, Accuracy, Objectivity, and Currency tests.

Make sure that your source offers real content, not just an abstract or summary of an article. If you find the abstract intriguing and relevant to your topic, then try to find the full article, even if you have to read it in print. Often, colleges and universities belong to interlibrary loan consortiums, which offer you access to more sources than your college library can offer on its own.
6. Currency
Two crucial questions for determining currency: when was the page last updated, and how will the age of the information affect your argument?

If you are searching for biographical information on William Shakespeare, a page that was last updated seven years ago will probably still offer solid information (if not great recent scholarly discoveries, such as newly-discovered manuscripts), assuming that the site passes the Authority, Accuracy, Objectivity, and Coverage tests.

However, if you are researching topics that are changing at a rapid pace, the information on a site that was last updated six months ago could be stale and seriously out-of-date, for example, scientific discoveries and the newest computer gadgets and software.

Determining currency is relatively easy; blogs automatically include a complete date for each update (although dates on blogs can be manipulated). For regular websites, check the copyright dates. Many abandoned and old sites will have older copyright dates.

Read the content. If the writer hails the 1-gigabyte hard drive as the greatest technological discovery since sliced bread, then you know your information is seriously out-of-date.

Click on the links; if many of them are broken or lead to irrelevant sites, then you are likely looking at an outdated site.

Check the Registration tab in Whois. If the site registration is about to expire or is in “Redemption Period” or “Pending Deletion,” chances are the domain name (and, perhaps, the site itself) will soon be owned by someone else.

Just use common sense when using website sources for information that needs to be current and on the cutting edge.
In conclusion, much of the information presented here on Authority, Accuracy, Objectivity, Coverage, and Currency can also be applied to print sources. However, these sources tend to be easier to evaluate, simply because print materials, for non-professional publishers, are often too expensive to produce. On the other hand, websites are often hosted for free or very little money, so on the web, anyone can be a publisher.

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