Before looking for websites, it’s important to ask: “does my professor want me to use websites?” If your assignment instructions don’t say, make sure to run it by your instructor. It’s best to be certain about assignment expectations before starting your research.
For the most part, you should judge a website like you would any other resource (see: the AA-BB-C’s blog post). In particular, look at the following:
- Who wrote it? This is often difficult to find on a website, but look at the “About” page or the “Contact Us” page. Then think about who the author is – does it say? Are they an expert in the field? Do you know? Can you Google them in 30 seconds and find your answer? (It’s generally a good sign if you can – especially if you can find other articles that they’ve written, or evidence of credentials).*
- Where did they get their information? If no reference list is included, that’s a bad sign. Look for a “reading list” or a page that says “for more information”. A good site will give you this information, or citations along the bottom of the page.
- How current is the site? Don’t trust the “last updated” date, either, since this can be set to automatically update by web programmers (an example of something you don’t have to worry about with other forms of research). Look at their information: is it similar to the other research you’ve been doing? Are their citations up to date? Is every single page the same from one week to the next (especially the home page?) It’s a bad sign if a website doesn’t update their homepage every few days.
- Who is the site written for? If a website has been produced for children, obviously the information will be different from the content on a professional website. If it’s an organization, consider who would be using the site: this will help point out any biases that may exist.
- Is there a sponsor of the website? Is there some company’s brand flashing around, or a link at the bottom of the page that says “sponsor”? Or are there Google advertisements all over the place? For our Health Science friends, beware the sites that are sponsored by drug companies: they often have ulterior motives!
- Do we recommend it? This may not work in all cases, of course, but our Brescia Research Guides provide several examples of credible websites, multimedia resources, and e-resources in each subject. You can check if the website you’d like to use is provided on any of these lists. If it’s not on our lists, try checking to see if your website shares common features with the ones we recommend (e.g. a credible author or organization, evidence of recent updates).
While using websites is both tricky and useful, it’s important to think about them before citing them in your bibliography. The above steps don’t have to be too time-consuming, either. Make it a habit to start looking for this information while you read the site.
An awkward segue: we have a blog post about citing websites, too, if you need it.
Good luck with your website evaluation!
*A note from our original Clever Researcher librarian, Heather: Sometimes you may find that an author seems isn’t credible (or you can’t find information on them), but they’ve posted on an otherwise credible website. In these cases, we recommend using your best judgment. If you can’t find any information about your author, that’s okay, and very common with websites. Just make sure to try. But really think about whether you should use a website if you know the author is terrible. Above all, if you have any concerns like this, show your resource to your professor. They’ll be able to give you guidance about what’s an appropriate source for your assignment and what’s not.
Note: this blog post was originally written by Heather Campbell. It was updated with permission by Katie Holmes on November 1, 2017.