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Evaluating Websites and Other Sources

Strategies to help identify trustworthy and reliable information.

How Google Ranks Information

With resources like Google at our fingertips, information isn't hard to find. What is tougher is finding reliable information.

Google actually doesn't make this easier, for two main reasons.

1. Google ranks on popularity, NOT fact. The first result of a Google search may not even be factually correct. That's because Google algorithms weight results that lots of people click on higher than other results (which is one of the reasons Wikipedia is usually one of the top results in any search - it's very popular). Google has no editors to make sure the information you click on is correct.

2. Google personalizes its results to YOU. Google changes what it shows you based on what you've searched before. It also tailors results based on where you live, what you've bought online, what you share on social media, and what you've sent in your gmail. Google is in the business of selling data - your data - not information. 

This personalization is great when you are looking for local weather, or new music suggestions. But this can also lead to narrowing what kind of information shows up when we Google - for instance, when Google notices you click on lots of sites with a liberal or conservative viewpoint, it automatically starts filtering out sites from your search results that are different from your preference. Soon, your whole results list is only showing you what you already agree with (this is called a filter bubble, check out the TED talk about filter bubbles in the sidebar).

Domain Name Primer

The domain (the three letters after the dot in a web address) can tell us a lot about the information we’ll find on a site. Reliable information can be found on all types of sites, but each type is usually trying to do one of four things – sell, persuade, entertain, or inform – and it’s not always obvious which one.

.COM - Commercial Sites

  • Commercial sites are selling something. They are also often designed to entertain.
  • They may be directly selling (like Amazon.com) or making money through ads on the page.
  • Sometimes content is presented in such a way that it seems they are not selling at all, but any .com (or .net) site has profit as its goal, and so should be evaluated carefully.
  • This is not to say that information on .coms is false, or even unreliable, but it may not be objective.

.ORG - Non-profit Organization

  • Non-profit organizations are often viewed positively because we associate the term "non-profit" with charities and social betterment causes.
  • However .orgs are still often trying to convince or persuade - perhaps raise awareness, solicit donations, or advocate for a political cause (for instance many political campaign sites are .orgs).
  • Sites promoting awareness of a condition, disease, or social cause are often reliable and can provide good data (usually in a Research section), but should always be cross-checked for bias.

.EDU - Educational Institutions

  • Associated with schools, colleges, and universities. Most often their purpose is to inform.
  • Since many experts (researchers, professors, PhDs, etc.) work at these types of institutions, these sites can be great sources for reliable research information.
  • Be careful of course sites within a .edu that may be mostly student work instead of expert research. If you see a course number on a document (like ENG101 or COM111) it’s probably student work.

.GOV - US Government or Military

  • Government sites are generally credible because they cannot be political action sites (like campaign sites etc.) These are also mostly used to inform, but some sites may change tone and focus depending on the agenda of the currently governing party.
  • .gov sites are often an excellent place to find research information on many topics - health, sciences, demographics, education, criminal justice, careers, and social issues.
  • These sites are also often some of the best sources for statistics and data.


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