Tidbits in Tech: Integration in Education/How to Judge a Website's Credibility
When exploring this chapter, readers may find this topic to be rather hypocritical in the grand scheme of things—given that it focuses on how to determine a website’s credibility. Yes, teachers will most likely assert that students should not rely upon Wikipedia for research references. However, with enough know-how, it is possible to wade through the massive information jungle known as the internet to obtain reliable, credible information. There are definitely different ways to find information and determine how valid that information is. In this chapter, researchers will discover why URL addresses are the way they are (.org/.net/.com) and why that matters in the internet search. Additionally, there is information to learn about where to find the authors, dates, and contact information. Included within these matters are topics of bias and agenda driven sources that can skew an objectively based research paper. All of these issues are contained in the determining of credibility.
Remember, there are reasons for why credible sources are so strongly recommended. For anyone looking to make a coherent, valid argument, it is imperative that the assumptions made have provable evidence to support such arguments. For example, if someone were to be writing a position paper on the effects of tax rates on economic prosperity or poverty. Assuming the subject is trying to answer the question objectively, he or she would want to understand that articles from partisan sources would convey messages akin to their stance on such issues. Conversely, government-based organizations such as the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) are non-partisan in nature and thus the numbers they produce can be seen as legitimate and honest. From that point, one can make their own assumptions off the given numbers he or she finds. Because of all this back work, the persuasiveness of the paper is much stronger, as well as the paper’s own credibility. There are many reasons to assure legitimacy and this above example is just one. Although it is very difficult to completely assure that any source is completely legitimate or credible, looking for the following details will undoubtedly help: domains, advertisements, dates, contact information, author, sources, bias, and slang. These attributes are major determining factors to understanding which source is which.
Advantages and Disadvantages 
Search enginges can provide every answer known to the web. It is our job to filter and decide what is true and what isn’t. This has its advantages and disadvantages.
Those who take the information they find on the internet at face value and don’t know how to judge a website’s credibility are at a severe disadvantage. Incomplete facts and partial quotations can be twisted to fit almost any meaning. Not only that but the information may be too broad, pose a specific bias or serve to feed a current social hype.
The advantages to knowing how to evaluate a website are that the user gets reliable information, not just data that fits the bill. If you go in with eyes wide open you will notice things like what audience the website is targeting, what is its major intent, and whether they post for profit or for more altruistic purposes. Knowing the answers to these questions and more will give the user the best chance of obtaining reliable facts and advice. Whether they are investigating the web for a research paper, medical questions, collegiate purposes or just plain curiosity, the person with the most accurate information will be the best educated.
What to Look For 
The following list provides key areas to pay attention to when determining the credibility of a web site.
An advertisement on a webpage is a good sign that this is a company who makes money out of offering information. This is not necessarily a bad thing but the user should be wary.
Again, the decision is up to the scrutiny of the reader, but it leads one to wonder if their data could be compromised or tilted toward bias to satisfy their advertisement customers. One of the surest signs of neglect to a website is when a competitor’s ad shows up on a company’s site. Another cue for doubt is when a pop up advertisement is allowed on a particular site. This is a warning sign because the user’s needs are not being cared for. In this case too, the site is catering to their advertisers.
One type of marketing that readers are finding on more trustworthy sites is contextual advertising. These are ads are usually for local companies and they relate to what the reader is studying. Even though it is still done for profit, they have been found to be more responsible to the reader. In other words, they have not sold the content out to the highest bidder (Best, 2009).
Another option to consider is use of a nonprofit organizational website which is free of all commercials. Non-profit organizations are goal driven rather than profit oriented. They are exempt from paying taxes as long as they meet their funding criteria. So while the reader must still look for bias, it stands to reason that their sites are designed to further a charitable goal instead of for monetary compensation (Non-Profit Organizations).
Author/Contact Information 
The author of a website is always important. If the viewer doesn't know who published or made the content of the website, then the viewer can't tell if it's a reliable source. Thanks to new programs like Google sites, anyone can make a website with some computer knowledge and a little creativity. With students becoming familiar with technology at younger ages, there is the possibility of more information being posted by uninformed students. One tip in this area is to look for spelling and grammatical errors as they are a sign that the site may not be reliable. People who are serious about what they’re writing typically edit their work before posting it.
Articles posted on the internet are becoming more and more popular. Newspapers such as the New York Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Wall Street Journal have websites that readers can go to for daily updated information. When viewing articles on these web pages, there is almost always an author listed underneath the title. If there isn't an author listed, then the viewer must determine if the newspaper is a widely accepted source of reliable information.
Some list the author’s name but leave out their credentials and contact information. These are questionable sites. To give you an idea of how important this is, Stanford University has done a research project on this and has a top 10 list on how to judge web credibility. Giving biographies of reliable, trustworthy people who back your site along with noting their contact information are numbers 4 and 5 on their list (Fogg, 2002). In short, if no one knows who is writing the information that is on the page, it should not be trusted.
On a website, the author may not necessarily be one person. Different people could be working on the same website, but publish under a company name. If a viewer was looking for nutritional information on a fast food site, there won't be an individual author for that page, but it will still be under the company name. When that is the case, the viewer must verify that the company can be trusted. Some questions the viewer can ask are:
- Is the company name recognizable?
- Is the company known for anything in particular?
- ex: good morals
- What does the company do?
- ex: are they a fast food company, toy company...
- Does the company work under regulations or laws?
- What is the companies policy?
When a viewer enters a site, they should immediately determine what they are looking at. If it is a homepage, the viewer can look for a tab either at the top or the bottom of the page, usually with the phrase "about us" or "info" or something similar. The viewer should then view the list of information and determine if the company is trustworthy enough to verify using their website as a reliable source.
Unknowingly, individuals looking to streamline information into an essay may come across the perfect material to satisfy either a teacher's reference requirement or a "credible" aspect to an opinion. There are certain things that should always be on the mind when searching for information because even numbers and statistics can be creatively skewed to give off the idea of validity, and thus credibility. This is most evident when related to topics that contain political ramifications. For instance, if the topic is the death penalty, one site may agree with it and give statistics that show how the death penalty deters crime. On the other hand, another search may provide statistics that suggest the opposite. So how does one know what to trust? The following will guide you when looking for bias:
- Make sure to check the site for any political leanings. For a quick introduction, it should be important to understand the difference between Liberal and Conservative, and Republican and Democrat. Most often, Conservatives side with Republicans (the party representing the idea) as the Liberals most often side with Democrats (the party). News organizations such as Fox News cater to a conservative audience and thus issues will be seen from that point of view. Conversely, a news organization such as MSNBC favors a liberal-democratic view on policy. From that, one can usually see what to expect when searching about a particular topic. Remember, these sites may appear to be credible but are really entertainment sources more than anything. Referencing outwardly biased information can lead to holes in arguments because agenda's are usually hidden behind the commentator or story.
- Always check the citations within the text. If an article quotes someone, ensure background information on the quoted information. It is easy to see quoted material and assume its credible information. However, in this journalistic era, context is as essential as the material itself. For example, Politico (a generally credible political news source) wrote an article about Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin on his radio program. The story came out and Mr. Beck responded by saying none of it was true and that it was an outright lie. Who is to trust in such a scenario? That is why it is important to check out quotes because even major news organizations commit errors. The Beck-Palin-Politico issue was over booking the governor on his program and how Politico stated that sources close to the organization reported such troubles. That was when Beck rebuttaled by saying such issues never existed. Additionally, his own website contained radio transcripts to verify what he said versus what Politico reported. This happens on both sides of the political isles especially because of how messy politics can get, but this is just a short example of why checking citations is a safeguard from hurting one's own paper. Also, remember that someone could be saying something with hyperbole to create an effect. That quote could be taken out of context to make the speaker look bad. For instance, a black woman recently spoke at an event and was quoted as saying how she didn't trust white people. That quote was posted on a the site drudgereport.com and caused a huge stir of controversy. As it turned out, the woman was telling a story about her upbringing and how she found her behavior to be wrong and how she changed herself. These are just small examples of how quotes and context all can be contorted to fit an ideology. Being aware of such tactics will help when searching for fair articles and analysis.
- Look at the authors. Are the organization they are writing for sympathizing with a certain idea or motive. If Paul Ryan writes an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he may not include his political party or even his past voting record on an issue he may be writing about. By simply searching his name in a search engine, it would simple to discover his political leanings and find out the bias he is representing in the article. Some authors may not be as easy to discover if he or she has preconceived ideas about a particular subject. It is never a bad thing to over-research a person to find if he or she presents a conflict of interest.
Although it seems small, dates can be important in determining if what is presented in a particular source is still credible. During the 1970s, the environmental craze was about global cooling. Fast forward 30 to 40 years and its global warming. Now the internet wasn't around back then, but the idea that science, technology, and facts often change. Even in this global warming era, there have been shifts between global warming and climate change as the correct name because of the behavior of the planet and newer research findings. The point of all this is that data can change over time as information is constantly being uncovered. If a source's date is older and has not been updated often, one can assume that the statistics within the article can become irrelevant as its content is no longer true. If one feels that they want to use an older source, it is a good idea to also confirm or compare the information in it with a more recent and reliable source.
One factor to consider when determining a web site’s creditability is its top level domain or TLD.
A TLD is the broadest network categorization and it is listed at the end of its web address (or URL) such as: .com, .net, .edu, .htm, .pdf, .gov or .org. Every website has a TDL. A website creator gets this categorization by applying for and buying it from a registered seller (Group, 2010).
It is important to know about TLD’s when determining the reliability of a website because it gives you a quick glance at the site’s purpose. For instance, if you were looking for information for academic purposes, when you do a quick search engine investigation you may want to look at the “.edu” sites first. Or, if someone is looking for a site with pure entertainment in mind, then any “.com” site may fit the bill. While there are no restrictions on who can apply for which TLD (that’s right – it’s all based on the honor system), creators typically choose the one that is most fitting to their audience (Group, 2010). Here is a short list of TLD’s that you may see and their most common uses:
- .edu – used for educational professionals, universities and other learning institutions
- .org – used for nonprofit organizations
- .com – by far the most common and it is used for general purposes (really anyone uses this TLD)
- .net – used by internet service providers
- .gov – government organizations
Click here to see a full list of TLD’s (Root Zone Database).
While a researcher can use this as a guide, it is ultimately their decision to use whichever TLD will best suit their needs.
A reader should always check a website's sources when determining whether or not the site is reliable.
If the viewer is looking at an article, they should read through the article and check to see if the author is referencing people, companies or other websites. Some articles, like those on Wikipedia, may reference another site in the article. In this case, it may be best to use the other site instead of the article referencing the site. The more direct the information, the better. A primary source is best.
If the viewer is looking at a company website, the viewer should check for any sources the company is referencing. Does the company only post information generated from their company or do they reference other reliable sources? For example, the McDonald's website states that their nutritional information is gathered "from testing conducted in accredited laboratories, published resources, or from information provided from McDonald's suppliers (McDonalds)." Though they generate their own nutritional information, they also state that they follow guidelines provided by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is a well known administration and since McDonald's is a highly scrutinized company, viewers can be sure that McDonald's will do everything they can to make their information as accurate as possible.
In conclusion, it is important to validate a website for credibility and accuracy. If the source is accurate, the information will be more believable. With technology becoming more and more prominent in today's society, students need to learn the various steps on how to validate websites. A couple of the advantages of verifying the credibility of a website is being able to find more reliable and accurate information and overall becoming more educated as a reader. The absence or presence of advertisements let the reader know whether or not the website caters to it's advertisers or it's viewers. The appearance of an author helps verify that the information was written by a writer with journalistic integrity, but bias may offer a more one sided opinion. Dates help the reader determine how current the facts are, while domains can determine the underlying purpose of the site. Finally, the reader should check a website's sources to determine if the website's information is credible. If the sources used are not credible, then the website's information will not be credible either. As a final thought, instinct is also to be considered. If something about a website feels wrong, then that is a sure sign that more research should be done. In this case it is best to either find another site entirely or compare and contrast its information with other reliable sources.
Best, K. (2009, Nov). Credibility of News Content and Contextual Ads. Retrieved Nov 23, 2010 , from Online Journalism Credibility Project: http://www.apme.com/resource/resmgr/online_journalism_credibility/contextual_ads_research_find.pdf
Drudge Report. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010 from: http://drudgereport.com
Fogg, B. (2002, June). Stanford Guidlines for Web Credibility. Retrieved Nov 22, 2010, from Stanford Web Credibility Research : http://credibility.stanford.edu
Fox News. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010 from: http://foxnews.com
Group, K. B. (2010, Oct 22). University Technology Information Services. Retrieved Nov 23, 2010, from Knowledge Base: http://kb.iu.edu/data/aoup.html
McDonalds. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010, from: http://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/home.html
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010, from: http://www.jsonline.com/
MSNBC. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010, from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com
Non-Profit Organizations. (n.d.). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010 , from Cornell University Law School: http://topics.law.cornell.edu/wex/Non-profit_organizations
Root Zone Database. (n.d.). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010 , from Internet Assigned Numbers Authority : http://www.iana.org/domains/root/db/
The New York Times. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010, from: http://www.nytimes.com/
The Wall Street Journal. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010, from: http://online.wsj.com/home-page
Wikipedia. (2010). Retrieved Nov 23, 2010, from: http://www.wikipedia.org/