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Features - How To Evaluate A Web Site

By LaJean Humphries, Published on December 2, 2002

LaJean Humphries is the library manager for Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt, a multi-service, regional law firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Her firm was one of several beta sites for a new software product from LexisNexis developed to validate a firm's client matter numbers and improve online cost recovery. She regularly provides Internet training for attorneys and staff. 


Introduction

I was very fortunate to be asked to be a contributing author to the book, Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet. This is a digest of the chapter I authored and the story of how it came about. It didn’t take long after first stepping on the Information Highway to realize that it was important to evaluate Internet sites. Attorneys may be very sophisticated but occasionally one still shows up in the librarian’s office, confused and dismayed, saying “But, I found it on the Internet” as if the Internet somehow bestowed accuracy on a piece of misinformation. The library mantra became, “You don't believe everything you read in the newspaper so don't believe everything you read or see on the Web.”

Once everyone in our firm had web access, the library started a regular program of Internet training classes. We covered practice areas as well as general reference and incorporated evaluation of web sites into practically every class. Eventually, we developed an entire class on evaluation. Soon there was an article in Searcher and next the chapter, How to Evaluate a Web Site, in Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet

 

Even the most highly skilled and skeptical librarian can still learn new tricks. Web of Deception covers web hoaxes, counterfeit sites, and other spurious information, medical misinformation, corporate misinformation, privacy risks, charity scams, the dark side of e-commerce and email fraud, legal advice, searching quagmires, how search engines work, and remedies for intentional misinformation, as well as how to evaluate web sites. There are many factors to consider when evaluating web sites and there are many sites that provide checklists and tutorials to help you with evaluation. “How to Evaluate a Web Site” doesn’t cover technical issues; see useit.com and other sites for technical evaluations. 

Sites to Help You Evaluate Web Sites

Many of the following sites are self-explanatory. All links were good in November 2002 but as we know, Web pages are fluid. They can be here today and gone tomorrow.

  • Bibliography on Evaluating Internet Resources
    http://www.lib.vt.edu/research/libinst/evalbiblio.html
    Nicole J. Auer, with Virginia Tech Libraries, maintains this excellent bibliography which includes Internet resources, sample evaluation forms, web site examples, print resources, useful listservs, and books.

  • Brandt, D. Scott. Evaluating Information on the Internet
    http://www.lib.purdue.edu/techman/evaluate.html 
    Professor Brandt, Technology Training Librarian at Purdue University Libraries in West Lafayette, IN, discusses filtering and assessment in this relevant article.
  • Criteria for Evaluation of Internet Information Resources, http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/index.htm
    Alastair Smith, VUW Department of Library and Information Studies, New Zealand, “provides a ‘toolbox’ of criteria that enable Internet information sources to be evaluated for use in libraries, e.g. for inclusion in resource guides, and helping users evaluate information found.”
  • Evaluating a Site
    http://www.2learn.ca/evaluating/evaluating.html
    This Canadian site from 2Learn.ca was designed by and for teachers and includes many useful evaluation tools for students, particularly elementary through high school.
  • The Effects of Margins on Legislative Drafting
    http://www.aallnet.org/products/crab/margin.htm
    Attendees of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) 1997 pre-conference The Compleat Internet Researcher: Advanced Strategies and Techniques will recognize this page created by Elliot Chabot, an attorney in Washington, D.C., and for many years head of the automated legal support team of the House Information Resources staff of the U.S. House of Representatives. It demonstrates the ease with which text may appear differently on different computers. See the multi-million dollar difference in the meaning of the text that a few spaces can make.

 

 
 

Who Wrote It? Who Published It?

“How to Evaluate a Web Site” and most of the web sites mentioned above list author and publisher as criteria to be considered when evaluating an Internet site. The book chapter goes into detail about verifying author credentials. A casual glance at the above sites shows that many of them are published or sponsored by educational institutions. That’s not an accident. Educational institutions and government agencies have a vested interest in presenting high-quality, accurate information.

Is the information current, accurate and complete?

Currency – sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the information found on the Internet is accurate as of the date it was written but is not accurate now. Know when currency is important. If the issue is legal, you probably want to be sure the information is current. Sometimes information is current and accurate but not complete. Make sure you have complete information before making critical decisions.

Is the information unbiased?

There is nothing wrong with commercial, advertising, advocacy, educational, marketing, or personal Internet sites. However, all sites should make clear their purpose and bias. It should not be hard to determine the goal or purpose. If you can’t figure it out, be wary.

Quality of writing

The author of a web site may not be a Twain or a Hemingway but the writing on a web site should be grammatically correct, free from spelling errors, and at least of fairly high quality. High quality writing conveys the meaning of the text clearly and easily.1

Training Attorneys and Staff and Yourself

You can use many of the sites mentioned above when presenting Internet classes to your attorneys and staff. Have them compare the University of Santa Anita site with the CDC site (ICYou See: T is for Thinking mentioned above). Read aloud some of the names; this will guarantee some laughs. After reviewing some of the sites specifically designed for teaching, encourage users to evaluate other web sites.

 

What do you do when an attorney asks you about a new web-based service? T. R. Halvorson has done some excellent reviews on LLRX. See his section, “Here Comes the Judge: Law Librarians Evaluate Online Services” Program J-6 in the AALL 2002 Educational Program Handouts, pp. 153-166, and his articles, "Searcher Responsibility for Quality in the Web World," Searcher, vol. 6 no. 9, October 1998, pp. 12-20, and “Checklist of Questions: SCOUG-Inspired Review of an Online Legal Information Service,” for more details. See also Susan B. Hersch’s “Inundated with Offers for Legal Research Services on the Internet? Sorting out the Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” published May 1, 2001.

You can evaluate web sites and teach others to do so as well. Use the numerous resources available as well as your own common sense and good judgment. “ Question, compare, and verify. Do not believe everything you see!” 2

Footnotes

1 “How to Evaluate an Internet Site” Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet. Information Today, 2002.
2  Idib.