According to Google, the Internet consists of more than 30 trillion Web pages and is constantly getting larger. Given these numbers, it's no surprise that some sites are more trustworthy than others. That is, some sites present information that is widely regarded as reliable, and some sites do not -- and the same is true for websites as is for people: it's not always easy to determine who you can trust. There aren't any foolproof methods for guaranteeing honesty and accuracy online, but a variety of clues and techniques can help you gauge a website's credibility. These include reviewing site ownership, examining content and design, researching other opinions about a site and checking in with your own common sense.
Check In With Your Common Sense
Consider the purpose of the site. Pages with a strong advocacy position, especially on controversial topics, do not always present objective information. Sites that want to sell you -- on a product, an idea, a lifestyle, a political viewpoint -- sometimes have a greater interest in persuasion than in truth.
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Consider the design of the site. A page on the Web that is built with garish colors, flashing graphics and intrusive sound and video may be more interested in grabbing your attention than in presenting reliable information. Pages that are cluttered with advertisements might be focusing more on earning income than on providing useful content.
Consider the Source
Look at the site's URL. A site address ending in .gov or .mil is an official U.S. government website, and information on the site generally goes through extensive layers of review and quality assurance prior to posting. University and school websites are often identified by an .edu extension and usually adhere to academic standards for posted materials (unless the schools provide students with personal Web pages, in which case, there may be no standards for information posted by the students). Other common extensions like .com, .org and .net have highly variable protocols for quality control, resulting in many credible sites but many that are far less so.
A source that is well-known to you, such as a local library, newspaper, business or community organization, is likely to build an online presence that reflects the group's offline credibility. Sites built largely or wholly from user-generated content, such as many social media sites, are less likely to have mechanisms in place to assure credibility of the information that is posted.
Find Out What Others Think
Put the site's URL address in quotation marks--"www.anysite.com"--and use it as a search term in Google, Bing or any other search engine. Scan the search results to see which other sites are referencing the URL and the types of feedback the sites have on the URL. Sites that have very few mentions elsewhere on the Internet have not been widely viewed and will have little or no testimony as to the site's credibility. Sites with hundreds or thousands of mentions will generally have feedback from users of the site as to its overall credibility. For instance, if you see many search results that refer to the site as a "scam," treat the content of the URL you searched with skepticism.
Identify the author of the site, whether a person or an organization, and search on the author's name as well. Your search results will provide feedback on how well the author is regarded. For sites with no information as to who or what group created the site, the content should be viewed with caution.
Do Some Research
Use online tools for additional feedback about a specific site. Alexa offers details about a site's popularity, traffic and history. It also identifies other sites on the Web with similar content so you can compare how sites present information. Online encyclopedias like Wikipedia have entries on the Internet's larger sites and often include commentary about how the user community perceives a site's credibility. For business sites, you can check the Better Business Bureau for ratings on the overall business. BBB also includes ratings for charitable organizations. Enter a website's address in online tools like Norton Safe Web to find out if a site has been identified as containing malware and is unsafe to visit. The site's whois record includes details on when the site was registered, by whom and from what country.
- Google: How Search Works
- Better Business Bureau
- Zeltser: Free Online Tools for Looking Up Potentially Malicious Websites
- University of Texas: How Can I Tell if a Website is Reliable?
- Cancer.gov: Evaluating Online Sources of Health Information
- Piedmont School District: Evaluating Websites: Criteria and Techniques