Evaluating web pages
The internet contains a large number of resources that are inaccurate or incorrect. Although misinformation is not always intentional, some pages are designed to purposefully mislead and it is important to think about what you are reading. Anyone can put anything onto the web. It is essential that you critically evaluate any resources that you use from the web and this section will help you to do just that.
A simple way to evaluate the reliability and credibility of web resources is to use the 5 Ws checklist:
Who wrote the information?
Quality web resources will name the author or the organisation that is responsible for the information, be wary of any websites that do not give this information. Establishing who has written the information is important for determining reliability. If you know the name of the author you may be able to find their qualifications, the organisation they work for and other works on the subject by the same writer. This will help you to determine their credibility and whether it is appropriate to use what they have written.
Sometimes it will be obvious who has written a piece, but this is not always the case. Look around the page for the name of the author; this may be at the top just beneath the title, at the bottom or even at the side of the page. If you cannot find the name of the author try looking for a link that says ‘About us’, ‘Background’ or something similar – clicking on this may reveal more about who has written the information.
What to do when there is no named author
If there is no named author, look for the name of the organisation responsible for the page.
If this is not obvious you may need to truncate the URL and look at the domain name (see where). This page may contain more information about who has written the piece of writing you are interested in. If there is an email address or ‘contact us’ link you may be able to use these to ask for more details about the author.
What is written?
There are a number of things to look out for that will help you to assess the quality of the information, for example:
If they are using sources that you are unfamiliar with, you may need to dig a little further and evaluate these too. If you are unsure you can try checking Library Search for the official publication.
Where is the information from? URLs
One of the first indicators of how appropriate a piece of online information might be for your work is the url address. Check the URL to see what kind of web page you’re looking at. Is it someone’s personal page, one belonging to a particular organisation, or even a commercial site? There will be clues in the URL that will help you to determine this, whether it is a blog or even a social media platform such as twitter.
Traditionally, the first part or the URL is the domain name, and this can show you where the information is from. The URL for the Library Subject Guides is http://www.sussex.ac.uk/library/guides. In this case the domain name is sussex.ac.uk, so you know that this resource is from the University of Sussex website. If you do not recognise the domain you may need to investigate further to ensure it is a trustworthy source.
With blog platforms such as Tumblr the domain name can come towards the end of the URL, for example https://bloggingforhistorians.wordpress.com/. In this case the domain name is wordpress.com so you know that this resource is a WordPress blog, written by an organisation or individual using the WordPress blogging platform.
A person’s name in the URL may indicate a personal web page. You can see that the URL https://twitter.com/profblmkelley/status/587214952181673986 is a tweet from Professor Blair L.M. Kelley, an Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University.
You do not necessarily need to avoid personal pages, blogs or tweets but you need to consider whether they are appropriate for your particular piece of research and whether they are credible sources of information. Specifically, you’ll need to think about who has written them and why they may have done so.
The final part of the URL (the top level domain) can also shed some light on where the information has come from. The most common top level domain is .com and indicates a commercial site. Again, this does not necessarily mean that the information cannot be trusted but you should think about why this particular piece may have been written (as you should with all information found) and whether it is relevant. Other top level domains include:
.co.uk – UK commercial and general
.ac.uk – UK academic institutions (Universities, Colleges, Research establishments)
.gov.uk - UK government (including local)
.edu – U.S. educational institutions such as Universities
.org –organisations (often non-profit but not always)
When was the information written?
Even pages created by reputable authors can be outdated, particularly those created for past projects. There may be a “last updated” date at the bottom of the page (although there is no guarantee that the date given will be accurate). Remember that this date will not necessarily be the same for every page on a particular site.
Importance of date
Knowing when the information was written can be important when evaluating it. Topics in rapidly changing areas such as medicine, computing and technology often demand very current information. In some subject areas such as literature or philosophy, information written 5 or 10 years ago may be just as valuable, particularly if you are looking at primary resources. If you are researching a fast-moving field and all of the references are from five years ago, you will need to consider whether it is appropriate to use the information in your work. It may be that this page has been superseded by another that is more relevant.
Finding the date
If the date is not displayed on the screen, it is possible to find this information through the web browser. If you are using FireFox right click on the page and select “View Page Info” from the drop down menu. This will show you the date that the page was last modified although beware that even frequently updated pages can contain out of date information. This is why it is important to include the date of access when referencing online resources. Modifications will not always be substantial and may simply be a spelling correction, although in itself this can indicate that the author is still maintaining an interest in the page. Online tools such as the WayBackMachine allow you to view archived versions of particular webpages so you can see how they have changed over time.
Why did they write it?
Although it is easy to be less critical of a piece of information you agree with, you must be equally thorough in assessing web pages that are in support of your argument. Try to be aware of, and acknowledge, any bias in the sources that you are using. The intentions of the author may not be immediately apparent and it is important to remain critical when assessing information. Some authors and organisations, such as those from opposing sides of a conflict, will have their own perspective on political, moral and even historic issues. They may have a particular agenda or only present selective facts and statistics that support their own point of view.
Emotive or vague language can indicate opinion pieces, propaganda or marketing rather than researched facts. That is not to say that you should always avoid these sources of information. It may be this bias that you are interested in, for example you may be looking at how people responded to a polarising event or historical figure. In such cases you might decide that it is appropriate to use the information.