Last updated: February 12, 2019
What is a Credible Source? How to Evaluate Web Resources
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.
As of 2018, there are over 1.8 billion 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.
As a result, life online has undoubtedly changed the procedures used to gather and assess information forever.
Even in the cut-and-paste Age of Wikipedia, evaluating sources based on their authority, relevance, and accuracy is still a requirement for serious writers.
Bad sources, like bad seeds, can bear bitter fruit for those who use them.
Fortunately, the oceans of data and globe-spanning inter-connectivity of the internet make verifying sources easier than ever as well.
There are time-honored practices of using primary sources, identifying their authors, and verifying the accuracy of the information they provide. But writers can use additional tools to keep their sources credible and authoritative.
Some, such as Grammarly’s Plagiarism Checker, can be used to make sure the content being cited is original. Other tools, such as the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University, provide in-depth advice and examples for evaluating sources both on and off the web.
The future of written communication is surely set not in stone, but in the glowing ether of cyberspace. Yet as long as humans continue to rely on the written word for the exchange of information, wisdom, and insight, effective and compelling writing will demand sources that are credible, authoritative, and accurate.
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 will help you whether you are a hobbyist web surfer or a professional or academic researcher. What’s more, we have links to resources with even more in-depth information on things like 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 type of 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 their 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 and 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 their 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 their 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 particular 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 their 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 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.
Step-by-Step Guide to Evaluating Web Resources
Now that you know the overview of finding and evaluating web resources, you can use this guide to help you with the process in a step-by-step manner.
Check the URL
Not always reliable, try to learn more about the author.
URL usually includes the person’s name.
If their name isn’t the site name, it will likely be in the URL after a tilde or percentage sign.
Type of Domain:
The domain type should match the content type:
.com = commercial
.edu = educational
.mil = military
.gov = government
.org = nonprofit
Who Published It?
Find the agency or person that published the article
Reliable publisher = reliable content and authors
Look at the first part of the URL between http:// and the first /.
Who Wrote It?
Find out who is accountable for the information.
Find the author/organization responsible for the content.
Look for a link or About Me/About Us/Background page that will tell you more about them
Look for info on their education and experience
Evaluate what you know about them and decide if you believe they are qualified to write about the topic.
An outdated source is not always credible.
Current topics: publishing dates are important
Outdated topics: date should be near the time the content became known.
Look at how sources are cited and what type of source is used.
- Scholarly content should always have source info, and should not be an opinion piece.
Check the sources for reliability and workability.
If the content is reproduced from another source, go to the original source to ensure it has not been altered.
Links to the Site
Links from other reliable sites shows credibility
If they are the only one linking to the site (from other parts of their site) then it may not be reliable.
Find out who is linking to them:
Type the URL into the search box on Alexa.com. Click on “Get Details”. Learn about site’s traffic info, who is linking to them and other details.
Find Related Sites
Type the link into Google search box. Paste the URL directly after the colon, no spaces. Difference search engines may have different results so try more than one. If you don’t see any links, shorten the URL.
Once you have reviewed all of this info, you can decide whether you believe
the source to be credible.
Since the internet is open to everyone, remember that you may be looking at false info or opinions instead of fact.
If you’re unsure, go to a reference desk in the library or ask an expert for advice.
A Visual Guide to Evaluating Sources on the Web
Here is a more detailed graphic (with animated elements) to help you evaluate information sources on the web. The step-by-step guide is probably better to use on a day-to-day basis, but this graphic contains a lot more detail.
If you would like to use this graphic in your work, see right below it for more information.
How to Use This Graphic
We are very proud of our data visualizations. Each one is the result of the work of many talented people over a long time researching, writing, editing, rendering. And we get flooded with requests to use them. We are happy to oblige. But under strict guidelines.
If you are an educational, governmental, or non-profit group, feel free to use it in your work. But please add a note to it saying that it is copyrighted and courtesy of WhoIsHostingThis.
The following link will download the graphic: Evaluating Web Resources: A 60 Second Guide.
If you wish to embed this graphic on your website, use the code below. Just click in the box. This will highlight the text. Then copy it to your computer’s clipboard, and paste it onto your web page.
Helpful Links and Resources
To learn more about determining the credibility of an online resource, please visit:
Evaluating the Legitimacy of Online Sources (PDF, retrieved Feb 21, 2017)
Looking at a Web Resource in a Critical Way (PDF)