A long, long time ago, in the early days of the Web, someone created a tutorial that said that a critical aspect of judging a Web site’s credibility is its top-level domain, such as “.com,” “.edu,” “.org” and “.gov.” Forms of this tutorial populate thousands of Web sites to this day, and generally say that a Web site run by a government agency, school or organization could be trusted, while a commercial site, or “.com,” is suspect.
Indeed, certain clues to credibility are conveyed through “.edu” and “.gov” classifications, but the mere fact that something is published on a Web site with one of these domains is now accorded far too much weight in evaluating its credibility.When we compiled the SweetSearch site index, we reviewed lists of “.gov,” “.edu” and “.org” Web sites. We found that “.gov” sites on the whole were trustworthy, and had a level of editorial oversight warranting their inclusion in the index. It got trickier with “.edu” pages. The presence of a sea of unaccredited schools meant “.edu” sites needed to be handpicked from the master list. And gone are the days when “.org” meant a site was run by a well-intentioned not-for-profit organization. Now, like “.com,” “.org” is an unrestricted generic top-level domain, meaning anyone can register a “.org” site, and any aura of enhanced credibility is false.
But judging site credibility doesn’t stop here.
I got a good lesson in the importance of looking beyond the domain yesterday while doing research for a profile of American political pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll.
A frequently cited source of information on Carroll was the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, a page found at the Maryland State Archives’ Web site—a “.gov.”
Carroll’s legacy is her disputed role as the mind behind the Civil War strategy that eventually led to demise of the Confederacy. She was a feminist and suffragette icon for supposedly being denied recognition for a monumental idea based on her gender. However, some respectable resources paint a picture of Carroll as a politically savvy self-promoter, who in all likelihood embellished her claim and manipulated evidence to support it. While we take no position as to the historical accuracy of either of these competing viewpoints, surely a controversial assertion such as this would warrant mention in any biography of Carroll.
Yet the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame piece ignores this contention, stating simply, “The President and his Cabinet kept her authorship a secret; the public was not to know that the Union plans were devised by not only a civilian, but by a woman.”In its own words, the Hall of Fame “seeks to honor Maryland women who have made unique and lasting contributions to the economic, political, cultural, and social life of the state and to provide visible models of achievement for tomorrow’s female leaders.” Perhaps Carroll would appear a less admirable role model if viewed as a cunning political mind rather than a repressed strategic genius. The most important questions to ask when visiting a Web site remain, "Who published this site, and why?"
This lesson reinforces the necessity of looking beyond the domain, and viewing potential source bias as a determining factor of Web site credibility, whatever letters its address ends in.