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According to the Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), over 7 million pages are added to the web every day. However, these web pages do not stay around indefinitely. Additionally, website authors may publish whatever they want and can easily remain anonymous and unaccountable. For these reasons, it is important to evaluate the quality of a website before relying on the information the site provides.
It is important to determine who is the website's sponsoring body. If an individual is unfamiliar, you should check whether the site gives a biography of the author or provides his or her CV. You could also do a Google search of the author's name. If an author is recognized in his or her field as an expert, peers in the field will usually have cited and reviewed the author's work. You may also independently verify the author's credentials. For instance, to verify membership in professional associations, you can check the associations' directories.
Sometimes, it is less clear who is a website's sponsoring body. You may check whether a "Home" or "About" link will direct you to a page for the sponsoring body or you could break down a url to smaller components. Additionally, the web site's domain name may provide clues as to the sponsor of the page. For instance, sites with a domain name ending in ".gov" are governmental sites.
There are several ways to check the accuracy of a web site's information. First, you should scan the site to check for misspellings or grammatical errors, as professional sites are unlikely to have these mistakes. Second, you should check any sources the website provides for its facts and statistics. These links should be current and relevant. Finally, you should look at other resources (print and electronic) to check whether the information on the web site can be verified.
It is important to note that looking into the authority of a site, as explained above, may provide clues that the web site's information is biased. This does not necessarily mean that the information is inaccurate. However, bias may affect which information the site includes or omits.
When determining the comprehensiveness of a site, you should look both at the breadth of coverage of the site and at how the site fits within your research, such as jurisdiction. To evaluate the breadth of coverage of the site, compare the site's coverage with that of similar resources.
Check to see that the site has been updated recently and see if you can gain a sense of the frequency of updates. While print resources have copyright dates and address changes in the law through pocket parts or other supplements, websites are not as clearly updated. Be aware that some dates listed on a page may be automatically inserted, e.g., the date the page was last accessed. Rather, you should look for phrases that accompany a date, like "updated through" or "last modified." Additionally, there may be an indication of when the website was last updated at the bottom of the page, in an introductory explanation, or in an “about us” section.
The address of a website, its URL (universal resource locator), can provide clues about the validity of the site. You should look at the domain extension, the links to and from the site, and the actual owner of the site.
1) Domain Extension
The domain extension (or the top level domain) is the three letters following the last period in a web site address. Common domain extensions include:
These domain extensions provide some insight into the nature and validity of the information the site will likely contain. For instance, government sites are usually authoritative and accurate. However, due to a lack of funding, they may not be as comprehensive or current as a commercial site. Commercial sites, on the other hand, may have their accuracy and authority affected by the company’s profit objective. It is also worth noting that sites with an “.edu” domain extension may contain information that is not sanctioned or provided by the educational institution because such institutions often allow students or professors to use web space to publish papers or other material. Student-authored material will often contain a tilde (~) in the URL.
When the relevant web site links to other pages, you should examine these pages to determine whether they reveal any potential biases or inaccuracies in the relevant web site. You can also examine the websites that link to the relevant web site by using the advanced search page in Google and typing the URL in the box labeled “page-specific tools.”
3) Additional tools for dealing with disinformation
You can try to use the URL to figure out who registered the web site at sites like www.networksolutions.com/whois/index.jsp or www.domaintools.com. For additional tools such as browser extensions and apps, see the RAND Corporation's compilation.