Evaluating Web Sites

See why to use databases.

Here’s how to access databases.

 

“Googling” for free web sites on the internet presents challenges. It’s vital to develop skills to evaluate free web content for its credibility.

Exercise:

Use the web links below for practice examining and critiquing web sources.  Use the vocabulary list on this page to make a few comments for each site. For each site, consider its value for a research project about health topics:

  1. WebMD on Blood Pressure
  2. Cook Cty Herald
  3. Treating Blood Pressure
  4. I used an internet search engine for “high blood pressure” and this result was on top.
  5. AARP on blood pressure
  6. Mayo Clinic
  7. Research Studies underway at U
  8. RT on Covid infection of German Soccer Star
  9. Do a search with Google for “high blood pressure.” Count down your results list and tell us how far down did you go before you found a site useful to an 8th grade project.

Challenges we face:

  1. The Google Search Engine displays results that may overwhelm and/or trick a student. What gets displayed at the top of a list may not be “best quality” but may be “most clicked upon,” instead. Companies that want your eyes on their web pages send money to Google to put their sites at the top of the results page. It’s part of how Google makes money.
  2. Research shows that students typically start research with the first, second or third item in the search results list and never go much lower down the list. Many students don’t realize that Web pages that are linked at the top of results (labeled “Sponsored Ad” or just “Ad”) are advertisements. They are not necessarily the “best” or even remotely related to the student’s information need.
  3. As H-B’s Sally points out, if you research on a tiny phone screen, you may not use patience to scroll deeply enough to find good resources that aren’t at the top of the search results list.
  4. Web sites can be heavily laden with distracting commercials that slow a researcher down.
  5. Sensational sites can draw traffic and rise in the search results ranking but are or rabbit holes that force many clicks. They may merely be time-wasting click-bait.
  6. Evaluating if a web site is legitimate vs.a hoax site or click-bait involves critical thinking; younger students may not master and apply criteria that help them evaluate for credibility, bias, purpose, accuracy; they can fall victim to propaganda.

Build skill with this video:

  1. A short BrainPop video called “Online Sources” provides help to skill students. Access the video using Myaccess.apsva.us and click on “Brainpop.” Using the “students” section, search for the video “Online Sources.”
  2. Students can accept the curating skills of their teachers, librarians and the databases that often POINT students to the best web sites on the internet in their “further reading” sections of cross links.  For example, World Book and Gale databases put the work of their professionally paid researchers to link their articles to web sites from .org,  and .gov and other authoritative agencies.

The last paragraph of our lesson “Why Use Databases” lists topics that might best be searched on the wide open internet rather than databases.

Students who chose to work with “free internet sites on the internet” can first consult the “Research Guide” that our library has developed for their topic. Its suggested web sites were curated by the librarian with input from classroom teachers.

 

Vocabulary and Strategies:

When enjoying what web sites offer, interrogate them with these concepts and questions in mind:

Credibility (believability.) What makes the author an “expert” on the subject? Is an author listed with their credentials? Are the sources of the information cited? Do the authors give credit with a “Resources” page or bibliography? An “About” page at the web site can provide author and research team background.  Has the web site received awards for its content?  Is the publisher  well known and reputable? Is the information quality so high that it is expensive to research, edit and produce?  Sponsors of the sight may provide grants/funding, or a site may be partially free but charge libraries to subscribe to archives if the content is valuable and well regarded. Do the editors of the site provide a “contact” page in case a reader wishes to supply critiques that might improve the content and remove mistakes?

Additional factors that affect the source’s trustworthiness are below:

Publisher’s Purpose – Who sponsors and publishes the web site? Does the publisher explain their purpose or agenda?  Is the publisher educating? persuading? selling? entertaining, joking by creating a hoax, or creating propaganda?  Clues: .edu and .gov  (compared to .biz, .org, .com, and open-source pages that anyone can edit).  Information for enthusiastic amateurs may be “infotainment” and it might be sensationalized to generate sales of related products (for example, History.com.) Does your web page have a “shopping cart?”

Bias – are the claims that are made supported by factual evidence? Or is it one-sided, or are alternative viewpoints offered for fairness? Is the author’s intent to persuade and convince… or objectively inform/educate?

Reputable news sites may be recommended by librarians for how they combat bias and voice multiple perspectives. Those news sources have skilled, educated and experienced journalists that follow a Journalist’s Code of Ethics. Reputable and respected news agencies have research teams and reporters who are paid to research and fact-check in their pursuit of truth. The strongest news agencies invite public commentary and debate. Before publishing their investigations, ethical, professional reporters spend time to invite the people they criticize to supply comment that they could quote to deepen understanding. Where there is freedom of the press, good news agencies welcome readers to “call out” articles/reporters that appear to be biased or who fail to include valuable perspectives, and they publish such “letters to the editor.” Reputable news agencies value the views that readers can provide to shape the reporting to be the best it can be, and potentially marketable for paid subscriptions or advertising dollars.

Propaganda – biased material… issued by some governments and the news outlets that they control, or by a political party seeking or enhancing political power. The purpose of propaganda is to increase a political group’s power by encouraging the reader to vote, protest or behave a certain way in relation to their government.

Open Source: web sites that anyone can open, edit, comment, add links and upload resources to, etc.  (Wikipedia is the best example.)

Date last updated – A lot of content on the internet is decades old.  Is there a date on the specific web page to indicate when that page of information was first published? Have the facts and sources that it cites become “outdated?”  Does the web site indicate when the site was last updated? (Try finding a “last updated” note at the bottom of the home page.)

Accuracy… might be affected by how rushed, informed or complete the information is, how well supported it is by facts and evidence. Outdated information may become inaccurate. A web site’s home page may have a “last updated” time signature provided at the bottom. News articles should be dated near the headline.

Click-bait and Ads – There is a lot of money to be made on the internet if a businessperson can get readers to click on their page, read advertisements or buy products there. Further, if a hacker can lure input of personal information through registrations, that Personal Identifiable Information can be sold to marketers or even hackers on the “dark web.” Anyone can create a .com or .net or .org domain and use it to gather personal data, post something sensational to gather internet traffic to sell ad space, or promote commercial products.

Computer search algorithms sometimes elevate a web site’s “importance” and popularity according to how many distinct users have clicked on it– not how high quality or truthful the information is. Is there a “shopping cart” icon on your source? Are products advertised? Such are sure signs that the purpose of the site is to make money off of readers, not educate. How quickly and directly can you access the information you require? Beware that click-bait may purposely take the reader down “information rabbit holes” instead of efficiently and factually inform the reading. What makes the author an “expert” on the subject?

 

Further Learning:

Snopes is a free web service that evaluates web sites, fake news sources, and urban legends to expose hoaxes. It produces articles for further study such as,  What is Troll-Bait?

Video (2 minutes): Checkology on finding quality journalism.

Journalist’s Code of Ethics

Middle Schoolers use additional sources besides web sites in a long research project. They can examine such criteria as format, scope, sources behind the text, relevance.  See details and exemplar annotations  in the mini-lesson called,   How to Write an Annotated Bibliography.

Evaluate sources for H-B’s high school projects by applying these models: