The internet gives everyone easy access to information and products from around the world. No longer do store hours determine when we can shop, nor do we need a librarian to locate the latest medical research. However, with this wide open frontier come liabilities-anybody can sell or publish online with virtually no rules, and it isn’t always easy to know who or what to trust.
Highly dubious information and excellent information can be presented right next to each other-and you have to judge which is which. Whether you are a consumer of information or just looking for a product to buy, it’s important to learn how to question and evaluate websites.
While each website is unique, you can apply the same general principles and ask the same questions to help you make your evaluations of any site. Please read on for the 5 steps to Evaluate Websites.
one FIND OUT WHO THE PUBLISHER IS.
On the Internet, the “publisher” is the person or company who pays for the website. A webpage may be written by a person or by a company. Yuan Zeng, a reference librarian for Johns Hopkins University who has had to advise countless students about how to evaluate web sources for school, thinks that authorship is the most important question. “Before you can make any decision about a website, you need to know who published it,” Zeng says. “Is it up to date? Are there respected references? Is the author reputable? Those are some of the questions you need to ask yourself.”
Let the reader beware … Learn to question and be skeptical and then learn to trust your instincts.
You can find out who publishes a website in several ways:
- Look for “About Us” or “Contact Us” links which should tell you who maintains the page and what their motivation is. Is the “author” the creator of a product? Is the whole website essentially a brochure for that product? If so, you should take testimonials with a healthy dose of skepticism. You should be able to find a phone number, mailing address, and email address easily. Be very wary of sites that do not have clear contact information.
- Find the owner through a free search. Website owner information is made public for consumer protection. The various companies that maintain the vast databases of website registrations provide this information free of charge. Try looking up the website owner on www.networksolutions.com/whois/.
two DETERMINE THE AUTHOR’S CREDIBILITY
Only you can decide whether the claims made or insights shared on a website are credible to you. If you are reading someone’s blog (a personal online journal, or weblog) about tips for traveling in Europe with fibromyalgia, then you might not care whether the author has a medical degree-you’re interested in connecting with another person’s story about their trip to Europe. The most important factor is whether you and the writer share similar travel tastes.
However, if you are deciding whether or not to buy a supplement or medical device, the medical credibility of the website about the product should be well established through references, not just through testimonials. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Peer-reviewed research in reputable medical and scientific journals (such as The Journal of Pain) is generally the best indicator of credibility because the research methods and findings (as well as potential conflicts of interest) have been checked thoroughly by experts in the field.
three EXAMINE SEARCH RESULTS
Web search engines like Google decide how to return search results by calculating how many other websites link to a certain web page. For example, if you search for “about fibromyalgia” on Google, the National Fibromyalgia Association is one of the first results because so many other websites link to www.fmaware.org. If a website ranks high in the search results, that is usually an indicator that other sites believe it to be reputable. Make sure you are familiar with which search results are sponsored and which ones are the genuine result. Sponsored links may be helpful, but you should keep in mind that the website owner paid to have them displayed.
four LOOK FOR SIGNS OF CURRENT ACTIVITY AND A PHONE NUMBER
It’s easy to publish a web page, but good web resources should be recently updated with working links (too many “Page Not Found” or “Error” pages are a bad sign). You can often find the copyright or latest update information in the footer of the page. Also make sure you can easily contact the company through a method of your choosing (email, telephone, or mail) if you have questions or need to return an item.
five TRUST YOUR GUT
Whether you’re a web newbie or an old pro, you likely have a pretty accurate first impression of a website. Think of web browsing like window shopping you can probably get a good sense of a store just by looking at how clean it is, how inviting the window displays are. What sense do you get? Does the website feel professional and friendly? Do you get the sense that you trust the authors or publishers? Or does the website feel like a digital version of a snake oil salesman promising a miracle in a bottle? Most people are trustworthy, but pay attention to the impressions you get.
Elizabeth Kirk, director of the Dartmouth College Library, wrote a guide to evaluating internet sources. She emphasizes that the most important part of evaluation is trusting yourself. “The Internet epitomizes the concept of caveat lector: Let the reader beware… Learn to question and be skeptical,” she writes, “and then learn to trust your instincts.”
Daneen Akers is an English teacher and a former website project manager for Verizon. She remembers being overwhelmed when first evaluating all of the web information she found about fibromyalgia when her mother was diagnosed several years ago. She recently finished producing a documentary about fibromyalgia for patients and families. Visit www.LivingWithFM.com to evaluate her website using these five steps and to learn more about the film.