Web sites can meet a variety of different information needs, including gathering background information about or further defining your topic, or finding details not garnered from other sources. However, they must be evaluated carefully and critically.
Search engines match terms or keywords. The best search strategies use accurate keywords combined with the most appropriate Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), wildcards/truncation and phrases. Natural language (How tall are giant redwood trees?) searches are generally not as accurate as keyword searches (height AND redwood trees).
Search engines may rank results by relevancy, date, sometimes popularity. Relevancy refers to the frequency and placement of keywords found on the webpage. Google’s rankings are based more on popularity than relevancy. When searching the web in a popular search engine like Google, it’s best to look through several screens of results because the most relevant websites may not appear on the first screen.
Sponsored links and top results are often purchased by advertisers regardless of relevancy. Sponsored links may appear at the top or on a sidebar or both. Look further down the page for your results.
All web search engines have advanced search options. Advanced searches show Boolean boxes and options to choose format, date range and domain name for a more accurate search producing more accurate results.
Many websites are self-published. Beyond the criteria mentioned for all resources, look for additional proof of value in websites. Some hoax sites look very credible until viewed with a critical eye. Look for:
1. Mission/Vision/Purpose Statement—reveals purpose of the website and point of view.
2. Credentials—a well-regarded sponsoring organization or an expert author. (Webpage content may not list an individual author.)
3. Date of last revision—this reveals how recently the content of a website has been reviewed.
4. Contact information—is there a physical address and telephone number the researcher can use to contact a real person with questions?
5. Loaded language—words that assign emotional value can be used to manipulate attitude. “Patriot” sounds better than “vigilante.” “Insurgency” sounds less scary than “civil war.”
6. Links—do other reputable websites link to the website and does it link to other reputable sites?