Many students evaluate Web sites using a long list of criteria, but pay little heed to the most important two:
Who publishes this Web site and wrote its content, and why?
When we asked 300 high school and middle school students how they know they can trust information on a Web site, few mentioned evaluating the site's publisher and its authors. Further, I've seen hundreds of cases where intelligent professionals have recommend, or cited, a Web site without knowing who published its content. When I evaluate a Web site, "who" and "why" are the first questions I ask, and it often only takes me a few seconds to decide to move on to the next Web site.
The publisher and its authors may be scientists, doctors, lawyers, or professors seeking to enhance professional reputations. Or it may be a news organization staffed by people with years of journalism education and training, with strong editorial guidelines, and a veteran editing team. The site may be published by an intelligent person who has a lot of knowledge about, and passion for, the topic, but who is publishing the site as a hobby, and doesn't necessarily care if he gets it exactly right. It may have been written by someone who is merely looking to entertain you. Or sell you something, or get you to donate money to a cause.
I've listed these types of possible authors in order of credibility. You might think that this also reflects their ranking in major search engines. In fact, the opposite is usually true. Someone looking to sell you something devotes a lot of resources to manipulating search engines so his site ranks higher than it should. And someone who is passionate about a topic and not burdened by journalistic or academic guidelines may write an entertaining site that is linked to often, and thus ranks well in search engines. Conversely, professional and academic experts usually put no effort into making their Web sites rank well in search engines.
When I explained why SweetSearch was the best search engine for students, I compared its search results for "War of 1812" and "Shakespeare" to those of Google and Bing. Those search engines prominently listed sites because that were recently published, and whose purpose was to get you to visit a city or watch a movie. Others were trying to sell you products, or were written by people whose credentials were little more than "I really love Shakespeare." Do you want to trust your grade to information found on any of these sites?
So how do you find out who published the site, and why?
The “About Us” section of a site is a good place to start. If the site doesn't list the name of the publisher and its management team - and this is often the case - then hit your Back button and visit another site. You would never trust a book without knowing its author and publisher; why would you trust a Web site without the same information?
But the About Us can't be the end of your research. Look for additional information about the publisher or author, and their intentions, elsewhere on the Web site, and then by searching the names in a search engine. Any reputable publisher or author should be mentioned on other reputable Web sites. For an author, search the name along with key subject words to see if he or she has written other articles, for other publications, on the subject. Usually someone who is an expert on a topic writes about it often, for several different publications.
Once you know who published the Web site and wrote the content, you have to ask, "Why?"
When we create our Web Guides for findingDulcinea, we usually provide research strategies that caution you to be wary of sites that aren't what they seem. We've come across dozens of Web sites that appear to offer valid information but in fact were created for another purpose. Some of these we explained in a feature called "Suspicious Sites," that is an ideal tool for learning how to decipher "why" a site was created. Many Web sites provide so-called information about a health topic, but were published by lawyers looking for medical malpractice clients. We've uncovered Web sites that appear on the surface to provide good information about mortgages, financial advice, insurance, plastic surgery options or drug treatment centers, but their only purpose was to collect your personal information so they could sell it to companies or individuals offering those services. In a more common example, recently we wrote about a highly celebrated woman who achievements were the subject of a good faith, historic dispute; we noted that a government-funded "Hall of Fame" site failed to even mention the controversy. The stated purpose of the site was to honor woman who have made lasting contributions, and apparently it felt that this mission would be compromised by reporting the controversy.
In all these cases, publishing accurate, balanced information was not the primary purpose of the Web site.
Of course, you should use a full list of criteria when evaluating a Web site. But as soon as a Web site loads on your computer, ask yourself "who" and "why"?Mark Moran
Founder & CEO