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PR 380: Public Relations Writing: Evaluating Web Resources

Evaluating Web Resources

The Web offers a wealth of information, but not all of it is equally accurate or reliable. Unfortunately there is no easy checklist to consult to see if a Web page is credible. As with all information resources, the usefulness of the information may depend on what was needed in the first place. If you're using a Web-based source for an academic research paper, you'll need to evaluate and cite the source carefully.

Types of Web Page Addresses

In summary, the URL or address of a web page often carries information about the source of the information. There are 5 primary domains (or address groups) for U.S. pages:

 

.edu (education)

ranges from serious research to student pages
e.g. http://services.pepperdine.edu/housing/

.gov (government)

factual information, usually reliable
e.g. http://www.loc.gov

.org (organization)

not-for-profit organizations, usually advocacy pages
e.g. http://www.aspca.org

.com (commercial)

commercial sites that usually promote or sell products
e.g. http://www.tiffanys.com

.net (network)

network providers that include both commercial and individual sites
e.g. http://www.internic.net

Types of Web Pages

Advocacy: These pages attempt to influence public opinion. Their web address frequently ends with .org (organization).

Marketing/Business: These pages are sponsored by a commercial body and are used primarily to promote or sell products. Their web address frequently ends with .com (commercial).

Informational: These pages present factual information. Educational institutions or government agencies often sponsor these pages. Their web addresses end with .edu and .gov, respectively.

News: These pages present extremely current information. Their web address often ends with .com (commercial).

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Personal: These pages are published by an individual who may or may not be affiliated with a larger institution or organization. Their web address may have a variety of endings (.com, .edu, etc.), and will frequently contain a tilde (~).

Concepts to Consider

Authority

  • Is the author of the page clearly identified? What are his or her credentials for writing on this topic?
  • Is the author affiliated with an organization? What is the reputation of that organization?
  • Is there a link back to the organization's page or some other way to contact the organization and/or verify its credibility? (address, phone number, e-mail address?)
  • Who publishes and/or is responsible for the website itself? Who has registered the URL? more info

Think about these questions as you look at the following sites:
Sociological Research Online | Social costs of smoking

Purpose & Coverage

  • Are the purpose and objectives of the page clear?
  • Is it geared to a particular audience or level of expertise or geographic region or period of time?
  • Is the primary purpose to provide information? to sell a product? to make a political point? to have fun? to parody a person or organization or idea?
  • Is it a comprehensive resource or does it focus on a narrow range of information? Is it clear about this focus?
  • If it is an information database, are the dates of coverage clear and appropriate to your needs? Is it easy to search? Does it present information in a usable format?
  • If the page is interactive (a database or simulation, for instance), does it effectively present the information in a usable format?

Think about these questions as you look at the following sites:
Addictive Behaviors | Melatonin | Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division

Accuracy

  • Is the page part of an edited or peer-reviewed publication?
  • Does the content of the page convey the amount, depth, and significance of the evidence being presented? Are the arguments persuasive?
  • Can factual information be verified through footnotes or bibliographies to other credible sources?
  • Has the site been evaluated by one of the Web subject indexes, a rating service or a library? If so, can you tell what criteria they used?
  • Did you find this source using an internet search engines such as Google or Yahoo? They neither select the best pages nor filter out questionable ones, so you need to evaluate the choices carefully. They also may not always have the most recent version of the page.
  • Based on what you already know about the subject (or have checked from other sources), does this information seem credible?
  • Are there obvious typos or misspelled words or other signs of sloppiness?

Think about these questions as you look at the following sites:
Pediatrics | Male Pregnancy | Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can't Index

Timeliness

  • Is it clear when the information was published and when was it last updated??
  • When was the research conducted?
  • Is this the most recent version?
  • Are there any indications that an attempt is made to keep the pages current?
  • If there are links to other Web pages, are they current?

Think about these questions as you look at the following site:
Hatecrime Stats

Integrity of the Data

  • Is the source of any factual information clearly stated?
  • Are the source, scope and date of any statistics clearly labeled?
  • Is it clear whether or not the information as been excerpted from a larger piece?
  • Is there a way to tell if this is the most recent version of a particular piece?
  • Does the page rely on photographic images to make a point? If so, be aware that digital images can be easily manipulated.

Think about these questions as you look at the following sites:
Domestic Violence Stats |Image Quiz: Real or Fake?

Objectivity or Point of View

  • Does the page display a particular bias or perspective? Is it clear and forthcoming about its view of the subject? Does it use inflammatory or provocative language?
  • If the page contains advertising, are the ads clearly distinguishable from the content?
  • Is any conflict of interest discernable between content and advertising?

Think about these questions as you look at the following sites:
The Nation | National Review

 


This page is adapted from:

 

Hammett, P. (1999). Teaching Tools for Evaluating World Wide Web Resources. Teaching Sociology, 27(1), 31-37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1319243

Search Engines

If you found information using one of the search engines available on the Internet, such as AltaVista or InfoSeek, a directory of the Internet such as Yahoo, or any of the services that rate World Wide Web pages, you need to know:

  • How the search engine decides the order in which it returns information requested. Some Internet search engines "sell" top space to advertisers who pay them to do so. Read Buying Your Way In from Searchenginewatch.com.
  • That Internet search engines aren't like the databases found in libraries. Library databases include subject headings, abstracts, and other evaluative information created by information professionals to make searching more accurate. In addition, library databases index more permanent and reliable information.
  •  How that search engine looks for information, and how often their information is updated. An excellent source for search engine information is Search Engine Showdown, written by Greg R. Notess.

All information, whether in print or by byte, needs to be evaluated by readers for authority, appropriateness, and other personal criteria for value. If you find information that is "too good to be true", it probably is. Never use information that you cannot verify. Establishing and learning criteria to filter information you find on the Internet is a good beginning for becoming a critical consumer of information in all forms. "Cast a cold eye" (as Yeats wrote) on everything you read. Question it. Look for other sources that can authenticate or corroborate what you find. Learn to be skeptical and then learn to trust your instincts.