Tuesday, June 18, 2024

8 Best Tips to Evaluate a Website’s Credibility (And Ace That Paper!)

Detect the credibility of a website like a pro 😎

Evaluating the trustworthiness of online content is getting trickier. From web articles with questionable claims to manipulated videos (like deepfake 😱), just about anything can be created by anyone and published on the internet with just one click.

If you’re a college student writing a research paper worth a huge chunk of your final grade, it’s essential that you lift info from reliable sources. 

So, how can you achieve this when the internet is overflowing with misinformation? Use these 8 tips to evaluate a website’s credibility, including major red flags to look out for. 🚩

1. Watch Out for a Weird URL 🤨

Some websites mimic legitimate ones by swapping certain letters or adding characters that can be easily ignored or mistaken for another in the URL. For example, “Faceb00k.com” looks weird and shady compared to the legitimate “Facebook.com,” right? 🤔

Always double-check the URL in the address bar to be sure that you’re on the right website, especially if you’ve clicked on a hyperlink from a different source. 

Typically trustworthy websites carry these domains:

  • .edu (used by educational institutions)
  • .gov (used by government agencies)

Meanwhile, these other types of domains may carry legitimate information but must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism:

  • .org (used by registered organizations, but you must check out the organization’s purpose as they tend to advocate for a cause in their communications)
  • .com (usually used by commercial businesses, such as social media sites, news agencies, and other companies selling something for profit)
  • .net (used by some commercial businesses, usually network services)

2. Scan for Poor Grammar and Scattered Typos 🧐

Online actors with malicious intent tend to haphazardly build websites to get cash or obtain your sensitive information quickly, leaving little time for proofreading and checking their sites for coherence. 

Sometimes, even well-meaning bloggers miss proper spelling and grammar and present claims filled with errors. Though they may have no intention to deceive, their work isn’t always proofread and verified by the pros in an industry, which is a sign that it may not be the best source to draw information from. 

College student checking the website address bar and content to see if it's legitimate or a scam
Keep a keen eye on the website address bar and published content to make sure you’ve landed on a reputable website. Photo: Desola Lanre-Ologun/Unsplash

A few errors here and there can be forgiven, but if the grammar and spelling mistakes stick out like a sore thumb, verify the site you’ve landed on ASAP using the other tips and tricks in this article. 

On the other hand, polished websites with correct spelling and grammar have editors and proofreaders ensuring that the information they publish is correct and accurate because it’s greatly tied to their reputation.

3. Judge the Website Design 🎨

Professional individuals and organizations invest time, money, and effort into producing high-quality online content that they want people to engage with.

After all, a poorly made piece of work reflects its maker. Tell-tale signs of a potentially unreputable or amateur website include an outdated website design, unreadable font, and links to inaccessible or irrelevant web pages.

Other giveaways are when a website is cluttered with shady pop-up ads or low-quality images that aren’t relevant to the written content, and if it’s not easily accessible on mobile.

Hand-drawn website layout design before publication of credible information
Professional websites undergo proper planning before publication. Photo: Hal Gatewood/Unsplash

Reputable websites go to great lengths in designing an eye-catching page with a smooth and effective user experience. This means you should be easily able to find and navigate to the sections you need. 

The user interface should also be easy on the eyes — no crazy colors, irrelevant icons, or anything that seems out of place. 

In other words, if a website is visually unappealing and awkward or difficult to use, it usually is not a dependable source.

4. Consider the Website’s Purpose 🧠

With tons of free and easy-to-use website builders and publication platforms, the internet is full of all different types of content created for various reasons. As such, it’s helpful to remember that all this content is published with an agenda, which could be good or bad. 👀

There’s a long list of different types of websites, but the most common ones you will come across in your research are:

  • User-Generated (social media sites, blogs, community forums): Anyone can use them to self-publish content including information that may or may not be true.
  • Business (company website, e-commerce shops): Often used for selling products and services, but more and more frequently, companies connect blog sites to share information related to their business. Be wary of taking information from here as it could be biased toward a company’s products or industry.
  • Education: Online dictionaries, digital encyclopedias, or information sites solely dedicated to health, finance, or other topics. These must be your go-to sources in research! ✔️

TIP: While Wikipedia alone is not a reliable source for your essay (because anyone can edit its entries at any time), it’s a great place to start your research journey. This website can give a broad overview of your research topic and can link you to more authoritative websites through the list of sources at the bottom of the page. 

So, how can you check if a webpage is right for your essay? Read the website’s “About” page, and consider the website name and the types of content it publishes.

For example: Is it purely informational? If it’s a mix between providing information and selling something, the US Federal Trade Commission requires the author to disclose that the creator is earning money if you buy from their sponsored content. This is something to look out for as it means the website’s primary agenda is to sell, not provide accurate information. 

College students checking affiliate disclosure in website
When you’re reading a website post trying to convince you of something, check its affiliate disclosure or partnered organizations to help you weigh your decisions. Photo: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

You can also check its intended audience through the nature and depth of the topic being discussed, word choice, and tone. As such, be on the lookout for absolutes such as “never,” “always,” or “everyone.”

You can also do this by asking yourself: 

  • “Is this health information website presenting findings in a frightening way?”
  • “Is this finance article explaining a concept using industry-specific jargon or can it be understood by a regular person?”
  • “Is this recently published analysis on a political decision relevant to me as a college student or is it intended to be read by experts in the field?”

You should know: some website articles may also be misinformed; information with incomplete or zero sources, regardless of intent. This is quite common on social media. 

On the other hand, other sites may be disinformed; information with the deliberate intent to deceive, such as propaganda.

To learn how to spot the difference between the two, check out the next two items on this list!

5. Check the Website Creator’s Credentials 🥇

Would you take medical advice from a random stranger you met at a campus event? If they happened to prove they were a licensed doctor, perhaps you would… but what if they weren’t? It’s the same principle when it comes to taking information from a website.

Knowing who is giving you information, specifically who runs the website you are reading, will tell you a lot about whether it’s legit or not. 👏

If a website and its content were produced by an organization, dig into their background and mission to see a clearer picture of what makes them qualified to talk about this topic. In your analysis, consider:

  • What gives them the authority to speak about this topic? 
  • Do they have academic credentials or research publications in this area to their name?
  • Have they been discredited in any way? (Here, you can search for news exposés or what people are saying in online forums)

It’s vital to know if the article you’re reading was produced by a certified field practitioner or a random individual with no related background sharing their personal experience.

Of course, some personal stories could enrich your understanding of a complex topic. But make sure to take them with a grain of salt, especially if it’s about specialized topics that could have life-changing effects on anyone reading your paper, such as health and finance.

Group photo of the organization or team behind a credible website
Knowing the team behind a website or the author behind an article gives you a clearer picture of the source’s credibility. Photo: Tiger Lily/Pexels

Another way you can find out more about the authority of a website’s creator is through their “About Us” page. Their social media accounts can also provide a wealth of information.

Scam websites typically don’t make it easy to find this information, so that’s another red flag to keep an eye out for.

When in doubt, stick to renowned universities and academic publications such as online journals. Their quality of work is better than the small or unknown establishments because they have checks in place, such as the peer-review process when it comes to online journals, to ensure they publish quality and accurate work.

TIP: The most credible sources are academic papers, scientific journals, books from field practitioners, and articles from journalists published by established news agencies because they are backed up by reliable evidence and meticulous editing or peer review.

You can check out digital libraries housing primary and academic sources, too. 💡

6. Scrutinize the Website’s Sources 🎯

Imagine being taught an unfamiliar claim by your professor that piques your interest, but when you asked for them to explain it in further detail, you don’t get a logical answer. 🥴

Though your professor may be an authority figure in your college life, it’s still important to know how and why something is presented as a fact by turning to other experts for additional insight. 

In the same way, when reading a web article, check if certain claims are backed by reputable sources by clicking on the hyperlinks. This should lead you to a relevant article from a credible and timely source.

Other websites list the sources at the bottom portion of the page. These might be available as footnotes, in-text citations, or a bibliography or reference list. 

Tired student researching from different credible online publications
Newbie at research? Go to the big websites and institutions that have been around for years. Photo: Camandona/Freepik

However, if there are absolutely no sources, that’s a red flag! 🚩 Lifting information from unverified or plagiarized work can greatly affect your paper’s accuracy, so always take proper caution.

If all the sources are in place, you can then check if the information is coherently woven together. It helps if you’re eagle-eyed about common fallacies, like hasty generalizations and circular arguments, so you can better assess the accuracy of a website and its claims.  

It’s also handy to know how to evaluate fake news by assessing the headline (for example, is it clickbait?) and checking if it’s from a well-known source that can be reached, among other ways of verification. 

7. Determine the Date 📅

Publication date of a website or article
The date of publication offers additional context to the credibility of an online source. Photo: SHVETS production/Pexels

You may be wondering, why is the date of an online article important? After all, it’s the content you’re looking at when it comes to your research paper. But, timeliness is vital because it’s possible that the information you are reading is no longer relevant!

This is especially true in fields such as science or history, with new research coming to light constantly that changes how we think of the world around us. Just look at the case of Pluto, which was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2006, or the debunking of the myth that Viking warriors wore huge horned helmets. 

As such, you should always check the publication date of an article. Generally, sources are still valid from the last five years or earlier. However, in fast-paced fields like physical science or tech security, it’s best to stick to the most recent research you can find.

You can also check when a website was last updated which is usually listed at the bottom of each webpage. When a website is up-to-date, it means that its creators are constantly checking and updating their publications to ensure their relevance.

8. Compare Different Sources 📄

Ever heard of the expression, “One of these things is not like the other”? While it came from Sesame Street, it can still be a helpful adage to remember when it comes to considering a website’s credibility as you look for the difference among a similar set of sources. 

For example, if you have five sources where only one is singing praises about one perspective of a topic and vilifying or outright ignoring the other sides to it, then that’s a sign that this one is probably not a good source. 😬

Student comparing different credible sources for college paper
Consider how your different sources stack up against one another. Photo: NFstock/Freepik

At the same time, you must also keep your essay balanced by checking counterarguments and alternative perspectives through other credible websites. Then, organize the bulk of your research by listing down the basic info and main points per website in a separate document. From this, you can form your well-rounded conclusion backed by credible sources. 👊

TIP: While it’s dandy settling on a web article matching precisely what you’re looking for, you may be subject to confirmation bias, or believing that a source is correct (even when it could be false) because it confirms your existing beliefs. Be cautious! 

Quickest Ways to Check Website Credibility ✅

In a rush? Use these credibility-checking methods:  

You could do the famous CRAAP Test:

  • Currency: When was this published and updated? 
  • Relevance: In what ways is this applicable to your paper or work?
  • Authority: Who produced this work and what are their credentials?
  • Accuracy: Are the claims backed up with credible sources that you can access?
  • Purpose: Why was this written?

If it doesn’t pass this test, then it’s probably crap! 💩

When you’re looking at an article, do the age-old basic test of looking for the right information with the 5Ws and 1H

  • Who wrote this? Check out their background and credentials.
  • What does this article talk about? Get the general gist. A summary or a journal abstract helps!
  • When was this published? Check the relevance of the date and released info for context. 
  • Where was this disclosed? Figure out why a certain medium was chosen by its publisher.
  • Why was it written? Was this written to purely inform? To sell? To convince? 
  • How does this compare to others? Discover the bias and the information included or omitted. 

Or you could also do a SMART check:

  • Source: Where is this piece of info from?
  • Motive: What do you think is their reason for publishing this? For writing it in a certain way? 
  • Authority: Who created this?
  • Review: What are its main points? Are they all valid and credible? 
  • Two-Source Test: How is it similar or different from other sources talking about the same topic? 

Why It’s Important to Use Credible Sources (in College and Beyond!) 💡

Proud college student building expertise from rigorous research
Mastering your field and building credibility involves the hard work of rigorous research. Photo: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

With fake news popping up everywhere, being able to analyze the information in front of you and determine if it is legit is a vital life skill.

As a college student, honing your critical thinking as a personal practice definitely reaps rewards as you build your own authority, which is invaluable as you enter your chosen career. 

Credibility is a big deal because people are more likely to trust you when you make yourself known as dependable by providing helpful and correct information. And when you gain people’s trust, you have the power to influence more. 

Plus, you’ll be well-equipped against fear-mongering or crazy trends in an ever-changing world. 😉

Finding accurate information online comes down to this: never take anything at face value.

Now you know how to spot credible sources from a mile away, don’t forget to properly cite them in your work. And with that, you’re ready to ace that paper! 💯

Evaluating a Website’s Credibility: Frequently Asked Questions

How can you tell if a website is credible?

Why is website credibility important?

What is an example of a credible website?

What makes a source credible?

What are the three factors to establish credibility?

What are five reliable factors that make a source credible?

How old should my sources be?

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