How to Search & Determine Credible Sources on the Internet
Practically anyone can create a website. Schools, businesses, government entities, churches, and libraries create websites so people can learn more about what they do. Individuals can create personal sites or blogs to write about their families, friends, work, or any other subject. Corporations can make websites to promote their products, and political activists can publish websites to promote their cause. Anyone with an idea and Internet access can create a website and fill it with just about any content they want.
There are over 600 million active websites in the world, many of which are protected by free speech and anti-censorship laws. Website owners can print anything they want, true or not, without worrying about the consequences. With so much content and so little oversite, determining which information is reliable can be a daunting task. But failing to do so could leave you looking foolish or worse. Thankfully, there are some easy steps you can take to evaluate the credibility of a website.
Tips for Checking the Source
How did you find your source? Top results in Google are often won by commercial websites with big budgets. Sources found via social media have the same problem. Read the tips below to get an idea of what to look for online.
This guide is catered towards the hobbiest web surfer. For professional and academic research please see our guide to evaluating web resources and links on that page to understanding primary and secondary sources.
Start with Sites You Know
If we had to choose between getting your world news from The New York Times or Smitty’s Basement Newspaper, most of us would grab the Times, because it’s a name we know and trust. The same is true for Internet research. If you want to know the results of last week’s election, visiting your favorite news outlet’s website is a great place to start. If you want tips on investing, pick an investing company you respect and see if their website provides the information you’re looking for.
There may be better information out there, but starting with a company you already trust is a good way to narrow your search. Then if you do decide to look up information from other sources, you can compare it to what you found first. If the election results on Smitty’s Web Press don’t agree with the ones you found on BBC News, chances are Smitty is not the most reliable journalist.
Check the Date
Another helpful tip is to look at the date of an article as well as the dates attached to studies and resources within an article. If an article cites a study done 10 years ago, it brings into question the reliability of the information. This is especially true if there are more recent studies available on the subject.
Another good indication that an article may be outdated is broken or “dead links.” Many website articles include links that visitors can click on for more information (like those at the bottom of this page). If those links don’t go anywhere, chances are the article is old. One dead link is probably nothing to worry about, but a bunch of them should raise a red flag. The creator of a legitimate website will take the time to keep links up to date so visitors can learn more. The presence of dead links is a good indication that the website is no longer maintained.
One of the best ways to evaluate an article or other content published online is to check the author’s credentials. If you’re looking for information about toothaches, a certified dentist who has been practicing for over 20 years is a more reliable source than a hobbyist with a blog. If the author provides a list of references to validate his or her credentials, even better. Remember, you can write anything you want online, so just because someone says they’re a dentist doesn’t mean they actually are.
Many sites, including trusted news sites, leave the writing of articles to staff or freelance writers. These may not be professionals in the field they’re writing about; however, the best of them will rely on professional sources and often include quotes from experts.
Check the TLD & Domain
One of the simplest ways to determine the credibility of an online resource is to look at the purpose of the website, which can often be learned from the ending of the site's address.
Every website ends in a Top Level Domain (TLD). This is the bit after the last period in the domain name. For instance, WhoIsHostingThis.com ends in .com, which lets you know that this is a commercial website. It the most popular TLD on the Internet and can be used by any person, business, or other entity, which means if you’re researching something, .com sites require more evaluation that some other types of sites.
Make sure to start with those trusted sources, and then look for any potential bias. Businesses often use .com for their sites, and in most cases those sites are created to help them sell a product or service. Therefore, any information on their website is liable to have a bias toward getting a visitor to buy whatever it is that's for sale there. If you’re looking for an honest comparison between iOS and Android, you should assume that anything you find on Apple.com is going to have a major bias toward the former.
Alternatively, an address that ends in .edu belongs to an educational institution such as a college or university. A visitor may find an article there written by a professor who is an expert on a particular topic. The professor may include his or her credentials at the end of the article as well as citations. These elements serve to make the website a more reliable online resource.
As a note, students are also able to contribute to many .edu websites. It's a good idea to look for citations when dealing with a student's writing to ensure credibility. Also, if you’re searching for information for a research paper, you probably need to look for peer-reviewed articles. Just because a professor publishes something on a .edu website doesn’t mean his or her peers have reviewed and validated the information.
An address that ends in .gov is a government website. If you’re looking for reliable information about government policy, tax codes, or a political office, these sites are a great place to start. The TLD .org was originally intended to be used by non-profit organizations, but any organization can register a .org address. Much like .com sites, you should expect that anything you read on a .org site will have a bias toward that particular organization’s mission or goals.
At the time of this writing, there were over 700 top level domains available, including everything from .barber to .ninja. While these unique TLDs may prove useful when you are looking for a particularly type of service, they can’t guarantee the credibility of any content. It's always beneficial to read all online articles with a critical eye.
If you’re still not sure, do a little snooping. Read other articles on the site, particularly ones written by the same author. Do you trust his or her opinion on other topics? Is the writing consistent and strong? Do articles seem unbelievable or even made up? Facebook feeds are notorious for posting articles from the fake news site The Onion as factual stories! Reading other articles may also help you detect a website’s biases—nearly all sites have them—so you can better judge the information they’re presenting.
The presence of many misspellings on a website is also a clue that it's not a credible resource. Someone who creates a legitimate website designed to provide people with factual information takes care with both spelling and grammar in order to appear more professional.
Check Your Local Library
The Internet is a great source of information, but when accuracy counts, the library is still one of the best places to do research. Most libraries now allow patrons to utilize their research tools online, so you can still do your research from the comfort of your computer chair.
Libraries have access to research databases, many of which require a subscription and aren’t available through traditional search engines. These databases allow you to search for articles in print and online journals and books. Since many of these resources are peer reviewed, the information you find in them is not only written by professionals, but has been reviewed and approved by other professionals within their field.
Don’t Trust Your First Source
Finally, no matter where you find information, it’s a good idea to double-check it against other sources. You can do this by performing additional online research and/or checking some print publications at the library. If you find the same information on several other legitimate websites as well as in a print publication, it increases the odds that the information is accurate.
Helpful Links and Resources
To learn more about determining the credibility of an online resource, please visit:
- Evaluating the Legitimacy of Online Sources
- Important Questions to Consider Regarding Web Resources
- How to Evaluate the Credibility of an Online Resource
- Seven Points to Consider When Assessing a Website's Credibility
- Six Things to Look for When Evaluating a Web Resource
- Evaluating the Information on a Website
- Looking at a Web Resource in a Critical Way
- Tips for Checking the Legitimacy of an Online Resource
- Clues to Determine the Credibility of a Web Resource