Evaluating websites is an important skill, and is not an exact science. You will need to look at a variety of criteria before making a decision about using a web resource. Also be aware that some resources may be appropriate for some research needs, but not others. There is no one simple short cut for determining the veracity of a site. You will need to put your critical thinking skills to work!
The domain, or suffix, of the site is one of the first things you can look at. Any of these are potentially biased. Familiar domains include
.com - A commercial website. Some students have been given blanket rules not to use these as commercial influence may effect the content of the site. However, many credible sources, including some peer-reviewed sites, use this domain. Do not dismiss these out of hand.
.edu - A site sponsored by an educational institution. Just as .com sites should not necessarily be dismissed .edu sites should not be given an automatic pass. A site with this suffix may be a personal website that is simply hosted by the university. Additionally, colleges and universities with religious affiliations can use this domain. Consider how the religious viewpoint may effect the site's content before deciding. Beware of websites with the suffix edu.co. These are likely commercial sites.
.gov - A government sponsored site. Again, be aware that government policy can be influenced by many things including public opinion and lobbyists, and not necessarily on evidence-based research. Statistics on these sites are usually accurate, however doing a little extra research will go a long way. Remember the that the Centers for Disease Control were prevented from providing content to their own site regarding COVID 19 testing. Government sites are generally good for finding current laws, tax codes, and forms.
.mil - A military site. Caveats are the same as for government sites.
.org - An organizational site. Some educational institutions may use this as well. These may take a little extra research. Look for more information about the organization to determine what bias it may have. For example the National Rifle Association's website can be found at nra.org. If you want to research the National Rifle Association, or become a member, this is likely a good site to look at. However, if you are looking for unbiased information about gun control you may want to do some more research. Once restricted to non-profit organizations, this is no longer the case. Anyone can get this domain.
.net - There are no restrictions on who can host these sites.
.onion - An anonymous website, hidden under layers (like an onion). These may be people or organizations involved in political activism, or activities of a more nefarious sort.
Does the website indicate when it was published and/or updated? Old information may no longer be useful, or it may be what you need for a historical perspective.
Can you find an author's name and affiliation? Does the author provide contact information (via e-mail, phone, or social media?) What are the authors' credentials? Do they have a expertise in the field they are writing about. A well-respected professor of English literature may have a cooking blog. Unless she also has expertise in nutrition the blog may just be a hobby.
Fact checking sources with good reputations include:
Snopes.com - The Urban Legends Reference Page. Site authors research rumors and include citations and references.
Politifact.com - A Pulitzer Prize-winning site that researches and rates political statements and claims. Rating scale goes from True to Half-True to Pants on Fire!
FactCheck.org - A Project of the Annenberg Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania also see SciCheck which specifically fact checks scientific claims
Washington Post Fact Checker - Rates claims from true (A Geppetto Checkmark) to "Whopper" (4 Pinocchios)
AP Fact Check - From the Associated Press
Open Secrets - From the Center for Responsive Politics
Be especially wary of anything claiming to provide the "truth" or "just the facts".
True facts and statistics can be manipulated in a number of ways in order to tell a certain story. Many people have fallen for the DiHydrogen Monoxide petition - requesting that water be banned!
Learn to Read Laterally
Reading a website laterally means checking its sources before diving in. If the "About Us" page tells you up front that it is a satire, or fake news site (some do) you can move on. If you are still unsure you can Google the author, or publisher, or host of a site to find out more. This is also a good use of Wikipedia. Read the Wikipedia article about the organization, and if it doesn't have one, keep looking.
A free, open-access e-book with a wealth of information about evaluating websites and identifying false information
Video - Evaluating Sources for Credibility
Advertisers may influence the content of a website, but like anything else, it is only one criterion to consider. Snopes.com and Politifact.com both have advertisers, and both have excellent reputations.
- A site with many spelling and grammatical errors may indicate a less than credible site, or it may simply indicate that the author does not speak English as their first language. Always dig a little deeper if you are not sure.
- Bias is sometimes evident, and sometimes harder to spot. Pay close attention to how the content it is written, who the sponsors are, who is hosting the site. ProCon.org is an excellent resource for finding unbiased information on a variety of controversial topics. More information about Media Bias can be found on the Opposing Viewpoints database.
- Is the page easy to navigate? Did you find the information you needed?
- Who is the publisher? Does the publisher take responsibility for the content? Does the publisher provide contact information?
- Does the site provide references or links to further information about the topic. Do the hyperlinks work?
Read the content! If something seems implausible, or too good to be true it probably is. Do some extra research.
Be aware that a website's author, editor, and publisher may know all these tips for evaluating sites, and therefore may be working to ensure that the site looks legitmate. The Northwest Pacific Tree Octopus site has current dates, links that work and an author with a (fake) affiliation. Always look for more information if something seems implausible!
Find out who is behind the website. Try typing "whois" followed by a web address into a search engine (such as Google) to find out who owns the site. You will be able to make better determinations for biases, and discover if the site is a commercial entity with an agenda to sell a product, rather than providing researched information.
Tips for searching Google for better results
- Use quotation marks to search for webpages containing that exact phrase.
- Limit your results to news from standards-based sources.
- Use basic Boolean operators like “AND” and “OR” to combine search terms.
- Use parentheses to group operators and do even more sophisticated searches.
- Narrow the time frame of your results to a specific date range.
- Search for results from one specific website.
- Search for even more specific results from a subdomain or subdirectory of a website.
- Use – (the minus sign) to exclude specific terms from results.
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