Internet Basics: Evaluating Search Results For Effective Research

Searching the internet places a huge amount information at your fingertips. Not all of that information will be reliable, though. There are things you can look for to decide how reliable a web page is.

Anyone with a computer and Internet access can create a web page. Therefore, just because you find information on the web, that does not mean the information is correct or can be trusted. However, there are ways that you can decide on the reliability of a web page.

One of the first things you should look at when evaluating a web page is the address. Is this site a .com site or .org site? Do you know the difference and what this can mean to the reliability of a web site? A .com site means that the site is a commercial site. In other words, the site is trying to make money. Take this into account when deciding if the information is reliable or not. A .gov site means that the site is created by a government entity. A .org site is created by a non profit organization (although anyone can register as a non profit), and an educational institution creates a .edu site. Decide which of these you think would be most trustworthy. This might also depend on the type of information given there. For example, if you are looking for census results, a .gov site would be very trustworthy. However, if you are looking for information about a controversial political topic, the .gov site might not be the best site you find for information.

Do not forget that what you are looking at is one page of a web site. Compare it to one page in a book. It is important to know about the rest of the site and the purpose of the site to really decide on the reliability of the page. You already know (from the address) what type of organization is sponsoring the site. What else can you find out about the organization?

The best way to find more information is to go to the home page. To do this, erase everything except the domain name or look for a button that says home. Now you should be at the home page of the organization that is sponsoring the site. Look over this page to get an idea of the organization. You might also notice a button that says "About Us." Click on this. This page will probably give you the purpose of the organization and its philosophy. Use this information to decide if the web page you were looking at is reliable or not.

For example, if you are looking for information on a famous court case, you might find a government site that contains primary documents (the actual documents associated with the case). This would be a reliable source. You might also find a site sponsored by a lawyer's organization. Take into account the purpose of this group before deciding if the information is totally reliable or if it contains bias. Finally, you might find information at a commercial site. Take into account that a commercial site is trying to make money. Advertisers can influence the type of information presented. The web site might still be reliable; you just might want to use it to back up information from another, non-commercial site.

Another way to decide on the reliability of a web page is to look at the author of that page. You have already looked at the organization that sponsors the entire site. Within that site, there might be many authors. So how do you find out about your author?

Sometimes the author will be listed at the top or bottom of the page. However, this still does not tell you much about who the author is and his or her purpose for writing.

To find out more about the author, you might first look on the site itself. Explore the site to see if a biography of the author is listed. If not, you can run a Google search on that person. Type the person's name into Google (put it inside quotation marks). Now look at the other articles that come up featuring that person. This can tell you a lot about the author of the web page. For example, suppose you are again looking for information on a famous court case. You find an article written by a person that seems pretty reliable. As you search for more information on the author, you find that the author was the defense attorney in the case, and she lost. This might certainly indicate some bias on the part of the author and reduce the reliability of the page. It might still contain accurate information, but you should keep in mind who the person is when evaluating the site.

A last piece of information you can use to evaluate the reliability of a web page is the copyright date. This date will tell you when a web page was created or when it was last updated. Why is this important?

First of all, the whole point of searching on the Internet is to find the most recent information about a topic. If you go to the library, you may find books on the topic, but these might be 20 years old. Even if the book is relatively new, the information might still be out of date, especially when you are looking for information on a science or health topic where new discoveries are being made. So, when looking at web sites, you probably want the most recent information you can find.

Second of all, if a site is constantly being updated, that probably means that the author or organization is committed to presenting the information about the topic. If the page has not been updated in a while then you might doubt the accuracy of the information there.

Did the author just lose interest in the topic? If so, then the information might not come from a professional in the field or it might not be the most up-to-date information on a topic. This is especially important when looking for information on medical and scientific advances.

Generally, you will find a copyright date or a date when the page was last updated at the bottom of the page. If not, go back to the home page for the organization that sponsors the site. There you should be able to find a date. If not, you might want to disregard the information.

Of course, you need to take into consideration each of the three criteria - the organization, the author, and the date - when considering how accurate and reliable a web page is. Weigh each bit of information that you find to help you decide which information to use.

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