How to judge online information
If you're looking for information, the Internet has a lot of it. The problem is, you can't trust every website you find. You'll need to evaluate each website to decide whether it's reliable. Let's look at some of the questions you should ask yourself whenever you view a website.
Is the information relevant?
No matter how good a website is, you should always ask yourself whether it contains the information you're looking for. Remember, just because the site comes up in a Google search doesn't mean it's relevant. For example, if you're searching for information about the history of skateboards, a site that sells skateboards may not have what you're looking for.
What is the site's purpose?
There are many types of sites on the Internet. Encyclopedias, online stores, blogs, and humor sites all have different purposes. Determining the site's purpose can help you decide how reliable it is.
- Check the About page to see what the site's purpose is. Keep in mind, if a site wants to conceal their true purpose, the About page may be misleading
- What is the site's audience? You may be able to tell based on the tone and the topics that it focuses on.
- Is the site trying to persuade you to buy or do something?
- Sometimes a site's purpose may not be obvious at first glance. For example, theonion.com may appear to be a news site, but it's actually a humor site.
Is the site biased?
In order to get the most reliable information, it's best to stick to unbiased sources. News organizations, encyclopedias, and other sources have traditionally tried to stay unbiased. This helps them build a reputation as a trusted source.
Most websites don't try to stay unbiased like a newspaper would. And that's okay for casual web browsing. However, if you're trying to find reliable information, it can be a real problem. For example, if a news blog is biased, it may distort the story or leave out important information.
- How much opinion does the site have? Is it enough to raise a red flag?
- Many sites have ads. Although ads usually don't mean that the site is biased, on some sites the majority of ads may have a political or ideological bias. This can be a clue that the site itself is biased.
- Look at some of the other pages on the site. Does there seem to be a bias to the site as a whole?
- If you're not sure whether the information is correct, try searching for it on Google. This can often reveal whether it is a hoax, scam, or common misconception.
What is the site's top-level domain?
Every web address has a top-level domain. Some common examples are .com, .org, .gov, and .edu, although there are many more.
- .gov is a government site. These are usually reliable.
- .edu can be a school, college, or university. However, some webpages could be student projects, and these are not always reliable. Try to determine whether the page was written by a student, teacher, or the school administration.
- .org is an organization. Depending on the organization's mission, it could be biased or unbiased. Try to find more information about the organization and their purpose.
- .com is typically used by commercial sites. However, it's also used by many other types of sites, so it doesn't really tell you whether the site is reliable or not.
Is the author reliable?
Online articles don't always say who the author is. That doesn't mean those sites are less reliable. However, if there is an author listed, it's a good idea to find out more information about the author.
- Does the author have credentials that make them more reliable?
- Has the author written other articles or books? Are they biased or unbiased?
- Keep in mind, even if the author isn't an expert, they can still be reliable as long as they do careful research. For example, a librarian might write an excellent article about biology, even if she doesn't have a science background.
Is the information current?
Many websites will include a date at the top or bottom of an article. This can tell you how current the information is. For some subjects (such as biographies of historical figures), this may not matter as much. However, for technology, news, politics, and other subjects, it may be very important to have the most current information available.
In the example below, the article is talking about an older version of the iPad, so it may not be relevant if you're thinking of buying a new one.
Does the site have a good reputation?
You can't always rely on the site itself, since many sites try very hard to disguise their purpose. You may need to get a second opinion—in other words, see what other people are saying about the website.
- Try searching Google for the name of the site or organization. Keep in mind, you may not find any second opinions about the site, and that's okay.
- What do other sites say about the site (if anything)?
- Is the site generally seen as a biased or unreliable source?