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Website Evaluation

Introduction

This tutorial shows you the basics of evaluating websites as a credible source of information.

Evaluating a website before you use it is important because anybody can put anything on the internet. They can even make it look professional and credible!In this section, we'll practice finding the following information and evaluating it:

We're going to look at several different websites by doing a sample search. I'm going to type "Martin Luther King Jr. Biography" in to Google. You may follow along if you like, but please be aware that all Google searches are slighlty different and your results will probably vary from mine.

URL domain of the website

When you do a search on the internet, you will probably get lots of results. How do you choose which site to click on?

Look at their URLs for hints about what kind of site they are.

What's a URL? It's the website's address on the web. An example would be www.sccsc.edu.

If the URL has a ".com," that means that the website is a commercial one. It may sell products, but not necessarily. It will be motivated by money somehow though (in most cases).

These first three URL's in our sample search are all www.biography.com, which is the webpage of the TV channel Biography.

Another ending that is pretty common is ".org," which is primarily for organizations and non-profits. Organizations vary greatly. It could be anything from The American Cancer Society to Wikipedia to Bobís Backyard Barbeque Club.

CAUTION: Be careful with ".orgs"! Anyone can get a .org site, so they are not necessarily reputable. Try to make sure itís a well-known organization with a good reputation.

Speaking of reputation … also keep in mind that ALL organizations are biased. Commercial sites may be motivated by money, but organizations are also trying to sell you something … whether it be an ideal they believe in or some other support for their cause. Make sure you know how your organization is biased, so you can account for that in their information.

Less common are ".gov" sites. These are government sites. Unlike .com and .org, not just anyone can get a .gov site. These are for government institutions only. The important thing to remember about .gov sites is that they are not political (in regards to party). They are websites for all the different government offices and agencies. They usually provide pretty reliable information. They are a really good place to look for statistics.

Finally you might see ".edu" sites. These are education sites, usually sponsored by a school. These sites are usually reliable, but make sure itís not a studentís webpage. Like government sites, .edu sites are restricted so that only an educational institution can have a .edu site. This makes them pretty reliable usually.

Check your understanding: Which URL domains CANNOT be purchased by just anyone and are therefore more reliable (usually)?

Your answer choices are:

Answer: (stop here if you're still thinking)

The correct answer is .gov and .edu. All the other domains can be bought by anyone.

Looking at the URL of the website is a good place to start, but donít stop there! Use the URL to pick a site that looks good, and then take a closer look at the author and sponsor before you make a decision!

Let's take a look at one of the .edu sites that came up on our search.

Author of the website

This biography of MLK Jr. is on a university's website (Louisiana State Univ.). But there are thousands of people at that university. Who wrote this essay?

Looks like Mitchell Brown compiled this information from "selected resources" and it was later updated by two people. Does that make it credible?

Because we have no idea who these people are, we probably don't want to use this site. Even if they list what resources they used, it'd be better to find those resources ourselves than take their word for it.

Let's take a look at another site.

This site is also a .edu site from Stanford University. It's not very pretty, but that doesn't mean the information isn't good. Sometimes you have to scroll down to the bottom to find the author.

When you scroll down, you see that this essay was written by Claybourne Carson and published in a book: American National Biography. We still don't know anything about the author, but it being published in a book is a good sign. Let's see if we can find information about the author on Stanford's site. Since the essay was posted there, there's probably a connection.

When we search on Stanford's website, we find that Clayborne Carson is a professor of history at Standford and the director of the MLK Jr. Research and Education Institute. This is a good sign that he has studied MLK and is a credible author to write on the subject.

Check your understanding: Which author has the BEST qualifications to write about philosophy?

Your answer choices are:

Answer: (stop here if you're still thinking)

The correct answer is John Brown, Ph.D. in philosophy, University of Virginia. John Brown is just a name and we don't know anything about this person. Dr. John Brown could refer to a medical doctor, who wouldn't know anything about philosophy. John Brown, Ph.D. could specialize in anything. You can earn a doctorate degree in music, library science, math, etc. Therefore, the last choice is the correct choice because it's the only one that specifies he has a doctorate degree in philosophy and even gives the university name.

Sponsor or Publisher of Website

Ok, but many sites don't have an author. What do you do then?

Obviously, we'd like to have an author, but most websites donít list an author. In these cases, look at the publisher or sponsor of the source and evaluate them.

Let's look at another site. It's www.martinlutherking.org, and there's no author anywhere. It's a .org site, so it's some sort of organization. Let's see if we can find out what kind.

You normally find the publisher of a site at the bottom of the page, near the copyright date (if there is one). If you scroll to the bottom of this site, you'll see a link that says "Hosted By Stormfront."

When we click on the link, it'll takes us to Stormfront's homepage, so we can see who they are.

Uh-no! Stormfront is a white pride group! They are going to be very biased when it comes to MLK Jr. We need to find a new site.

How about this one? The URL is www.infoplease.com (so it is a commercial site), but not all commercial sites are bad. Let's look at the publisher (at the bottom).

In this case, the .com is an educational company: Pearson Education. And while it's good to be skeptical of any site claiming to be an educational company, Pearson is a very well-known company. It's likely that at least one of your textbooks is published by them. Also, this essay on MLK Jr. is published in one of their books, The Columbia Encyclopedia, which adds to its credibility.

Check your understanding: Which publisher/sponsor has the most authority to write about temperature changes in America over the last 100 years?

Your answer choices are:

Answer: (stop here if you're still thinking)

The correct answer is the National Climate Data Center; they are the government agency that tracks climate information over time. The Weather Channel is not the best choice because it's a commercial site and often they don't have historical data going back 100 years. Spartanburg's local meterorologist is not the best choice since he or she will only be conccerned with local and current weather. The organization called Fight Global Warming is not the best choice since they sound biased.

And to bring it all back together, here's a note on Wikipedia. The reason many instructors don't like Wikipedia is not because it always has bad information or theyíre being mean. It's because you're just never sure whether it's good or bad information.

Why?

Author: It's authored anonymously by anyone. (Yes, you could edit wikipedia.)

Sponsor: It's published by the Wikimedia Foundation....whoever that is?

URL domain: Because the Wikimedia Foundation is the non-profit group behind the site, it's a .org site, which means anyone could be behind it. You just don't know.

But don't despair, you can still use pieces of Wikipedia to get started. Scroll to the bottom of an article and usually there are references and links to other sources. Follow the links, but don't forget to evaluate those sources too. Be a skeptic! Donít trust anyone!

This is the end of this tutorial.

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