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Monday, August 21, 2017

Evaluating Websites

Evaluating Websites

Books and Websites

How can you tell if a book on the library shelves is a reliable source for research? The easy answer is that you know that a librarian has put it there. Before books are purchased for the library collection, librarians read reviews and decide if the book fits the needs of the school's curriculum and the assignments that students are likely to get. The librarians are familiar with the names of reputable publishers and authors, and are aware of the reading levels of the books they buy.

Unfortunately, you'll be on your own when it comes to deciding if websites are reliable sources for research. Although it's often a good idea to begin with websites librarians have recommended, when you use a search engine to locate information, you'll have to be able to evaluate the websites you find on your own.

Website Evaluation Criteria

The best criteria will be the ones that you develop yourself for your own use. But in general, think of the things that tell you a book is reliable (other than the librarian) and look for those things in your website.

  • Authority: Who is responsible for this website?
    • Look for an author's name. This tells you that someone is willing to be considered responsible for the content of the website. The author's name may be familiar to you (for example, the name of a famous writer, or someone in the government.) If the author's name is not familiar to you, you can Google™ it to get more information. Is the author an author of books as well, or a recognized expert on this subject? That's a good sign. Does it appear to be some individual person's home page? That's not a good sign.
    • Look for the name of the institution that hosts the page. If your research is coming from the biochemistry lab at Harvard University, it's probably reliable. If it's coming from a branch of the United States government (or from another recognized world government), it's probably reliable. If it's hosted at a free-hosting site (such as xanga.com or myspace.com) it may not be reliable.
  • Currency: How up-to-date is this website?
    • Last updated. A good website will have a date somewhere, either at the top or the bottom, which will tell you when this page was updated last. "Last updated" means that something, but not everything, on the page was changed on the date given.
    • Copyright. Just like the copyright date in a printed book, a copyright date on a website provides important information about how up-to-date the information is. "Copyright" means that the entire page is valid as of the date given. If the information is too old, it may not be reliable. Of course, if the topic of your research is "The Battle of Gettysburg," up-to-date may not be an issue.
  • Functionality: How usable is this website?
    • A website that comes from a university, a major corporation, or the government will be well-made and easy to use.
      • All of its links will work
      • The site will be clearly laid out and easy to use
      • All of the pictures will load properly
      • The pages will load quickly
      • There won't be extra and distracting animations, or at least, too many of them
      • The page will be well-designed, not too wide for the screen, and not overly long
    • Be suspicious of a page that strays too far from these criteria
  • Search engines and Sponsored Links
    • Most search engines featured Sponsored Links, which means links that advertisers have paid the search engine to put first on its list of results. Sponsored links should be clearly marked. A sponsored link may be trying to sell you something, or provide information for its own reasons. The information may not be unbiased. Be careful.
  • Bias: Information with its own point of view
    • You always need to check for the point of view in your information sources, whether you're using the Internet, a magazine article, a book, or even a personal interview. Some kinds of sources are more objective (that is, without an opinion) than others.
    • The best way to check for bias is to pick a controversial subject and see how each source treats it. For example, if you are looking for information about abortions in the United States:
      • You would expect an article in the encyclopedia to list facts in a clear, unbiased way.
      • You would expect an article in a general news magazine to provide more detail, but still in a relatively unbiased way.
      • If you went to the website for Planned Parenthood, you would expect to find information in favor of abortions, which is the point of view of this organization.
      • If you went to the website for the Catholic Church, you would expect to find information opposed to abortions, which is the viewpoint of this organization.
    • There is nothing wrong with organizations that have specific points of view expressing them in print or on the Internet, and there is nothing wrong with your using this information in your research. But if you are presenting someone's opinion, you must be aware of that, and you must make it clear in your work.

The URL

URL stands for Universal Resource Locater. The URL is the address of the website. A typical URL looks like this:

http://www.flhs.org/

Each part of the URL means something; if you have an idea about what each part means, it may help you understand whether or not the site is reliable.

  • Protocol: Almost every URL we see begins with the protocol indicator http://. But there are many many sites that begin with different indicators. These include ftp:// telnet:// and gopher://. These were more common in the early days of the Internet. It's unlikely that you will ever see the last two, but sometimes you will be taken to an ftp site, which is a site provided for you to download files from.
    • The protocol http:// means that the page you're looking at was written in a computer language called html, which is currently the standard in which the way all webpages are currently being written.
    • You will sometimes see an URL that begins with the indicator file://. This means that you are accessing a file on your own computer.
  • www: This indicates that this page was prepared to be viewed on the World Wide Web, which is what we now simply call The Internet. Not all webpages still use this marker, but many, many do.
    • An ftp site may have an address that begins with ftp://ftp. If you see this in the address of the page you're looking at, it is not a page that you can read and locate information on. You're in the wrong place.
  • Domain name: A domain name consists of two parts: the unique identifier, followed by a period ("dot") and a suffix, usually three letters long.

    In order to purchase and own a unique web address, a domain name must be selected, purchased, and registered. The domain name that belongs to  Fair Lawn High School is flhs.org. This is a unique name that is owned by Fair Lawn High School and cannot be used by anyone else. A large company, such as The New York Times newspaper, will go to great lengths and expense to make sure that no one else can buy their domain name and use it. (Their domain name is nytimes.com.)

  • Suffix: This is the three letter code that appears at the end of the URL, following a period. The period is usually pronounced "dot" when a URL is read aloud.
    • The majority of websites are "dot-coms", which means, they end .com. .com indicates that this is a commercial website; that is, it is the site of a business or is related to business somehow. It is very easy for anyone to buy a dot-com.
    • Many websites are dot-orgs; that is, they end in .org. This stands for organization. In general, dot-orgs are reserved for non-profit organizations, such as public schools, charities, and other similar places, although it is not difficult to purchase a dot-org.
    • Universities and colleges are dot-edu sites; they end in .edu. This is a very good marker of reliability for a URL, because it is impossible for anyone to just buy a dot-edu. They are only issued to universities and colleges.
    • All sites that are sponsored by the United States government are dot-govs; they end in .gov. This is an excellent marker of reliability. No one else can get a dot-gov except the United States government or its agencies.
  • When there's more following the suffix
    • You will often see more information after the dot-something. For example, www.whitehouse.gov is the URL for the Office of the President of the United States. www.whitehouse.gov/ask/ is the address of the sub-website you can go to to ask the President questions. This means that the second page is part of the first website. You may also see something like www.flhs.org/main/thisweek.htm, which is the address of a specific page in a specific subdirectory at our site.
    • The official address of one of the 50 states of the United States looks like this: http://www.state.nj.us/.
    • Some public school districts use their official addresses (as opposed to the dot-orgs, like we use), that look like this: http://www.ridgewood.k12.nj.us/. This is optional, and not used by all school districts.
    • URLs that have been registered in other countries follow similar, but not the same, patterns. For example, the URL for the government of the United Kingdom is http://www.parliament.uk/. The URL for the Louvre, the famous museum in France, is http://www.louvre.fr/.

False information is out there: Be careful!

Just because something is on the Internet, that doesn't mean that it's true. Anyone can create a webpage and say anything he or she wants. People may be trying to trick you on purpose, or just to amuse themselves, or because they sincerely believed information that is false and they are trying to convince you, too.

  • It is a common trick for unscrupulous website operators to buy domain names that are similar to, but not the same, as well-known websites in order to trick people into coming to their sites. Pornographers, for example, will buy names that are similar to the names of children's characters or books or TV shows, just a bit misspelled, so that children will go there accidentally when trying to find out about characters they like. Porn sites get paid according to how many times their sites are opened up; they don't care that they're exposing children to pornography. Always check your spelling!
  • In addition to misspelling domain names to lure innocent victims, Internet tricksters will also buy domain names that are the same as legitimate ones, but with a different ending, for example, replacing a .gov with .com.

The Internet seems to make things easy, but in fact it requires you to stay sharp and to think critically about everything you look at. You need to use your judgment before you believe anything you read