Online Information--Fact or Fiction? Determining Web Site Credibility

by Julie Griffin Levitt, author of Your Career: How to Make It Happen, 4th Edition

The Internet is potentially a convenient, meaningful source of information. The Net's greatest strength is that anyone with a computer and a modem can get a message out-this is also its greatest weakness. The trick is determining what information is credible and avoiding falsehoods, scams, and unreliable information. No cyberpolice monitor the validity of Net information-it's up to you. This article provides tools to help you sort the facts from the fiction and the fluff from the substance.

To evaluate the credibility of Web sites and the information and advice they offer, consider the following questions and guidelines:

1. Who Sponsors the Information?

Determining the source helps to verify the reliability of the information. Some publishers and authors are more reliable than others; the same is true of Web sites.

      • Consider the author or producer--is this a qualified voice on the subject? Look for the author's credentials and for mention of the co-sponsor. Determining who is speaking for the site is one of the most important aspects of site validation.

      • Check the URL (Internet address); the URL typically indicates if the site is a governmental institution (.gov), educational (.edu), or commercial site (.com).

2. What is the Purpose of the Site?

Review the site to determine the primary purpose or agenda, which is either openly stated or sometimes hidden. Typically, the main purpose of a site is one of the following: to provide information, to sell a product, to promote an idea (political or advocacy group), or to exchange opinions or information.

      • Consider the purpose and any possible bias from the source when evaluating the information.

      • Determine if the information you need is free or if it requires paying a fee. (Avoid sites that charge a fee for information; in most cases, you can find it for no fee with more research. An exception is searching for extremely sophisticated or technical information for which the source has earned a special fee.)

      • Does the site contain advertisements? A large number of ads is a big clue that the primary purpose of a site is sales.

3. How Does it Look?

High quality Web sites are usually well designed and have correctly formatted content. Look for the following qualities:

      • Site has good graphic design and layout (neat and eye appealing).

      • Text is grammatically accurate and spelling is correct.

      • Content is well written, organized, and tasteful.

Important Note--looks can deceive. Often, a professional look to a site is an indication of credibility, but this is not always so. A flashy site can be a front for an empty shell or a scheme or for person or group that is not trustworthy and actually has a poor quality product or service.

4. When Was the Information Created or Revised?

To determine the currency of information, look for a "last revised" or "last updated" message or some other indication of the content timeliness.

5. How Meaty and Objective Is the Information?

      • Does the site provide comprehensive links to other useful resources and information, or is it just a one-stop dead end?

      • Does the content fit with other knowledge you have and with other reliable sources? Check at least three other sources (Web site or print media) to validate new data.

      • Is the content vague or too general? The most credible information is specific and backed with examples and detail.

      • Is the content objective? Look for substantiating evidence to back claims or statements.

      • Look for signs of invalidity: (a) Too much personal bias or opinion, (b) gross exaggeration, (c) focus on ominous plots, (d) paranoid emphasis.

6. How User-Friendly is the Site?

      • How easy is the site to navigate? Is the content organized logically? Do the majority of links work? Do pages load easily?

      • Is contact information for the author or producer included?


Web Site Credibility Robbers

1. No author information

2. Poor Web design

3. Grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors.

4. Biased viewpoint.

5. Vague, overly general content, lacking specifics and detail, or "hot air" content.

6. Outdated information.

7. Gross exaggeration.

8. Links to "strange" sites or an undercurrent of paranoia, ominous plots viewpoint.