We’ve all heard the joke “If it’s on the Internet it must be true!” In reality, anyone can create a website and put information on the Internet whether it’s true or not. Often, entities that are selling a product will only list information that supports their products. It is important as consumers that we seek out balanced, factual information. As a Michigan State University Extension educator, I have worked with many farmers who use the Internet as a valuable resource to increase their knowledge on a wide array of subjects. But how do we sort through all of the correct and incorrect information available to us? Fortunately, there are some clues that can indicate whether the information is credible.
The author should be clearly identified and their credentials should be relevant to the topic. An author writing an informational piece will have their related credentials listed. Don’t be fooled by titles. A person with a PhD can be listed as Dr., but it does not mean he or she is an expert in all subjects. The PhD should be in a field related to the topic and the author’s current position should be clearly identified.
In general, websites with more citations and links will provide you with better information. On a website you are unsure of, it is a good idea to spot check facts with more reputable websites or research papers. Even in articles written by reputable sources, the author may show bias, so it’s still a good idea to look at multiple sources.
A website sponsor with a vested interest in making a profit is not likely to provide balanced information. Often website sponsors appear on the sidebars of a website or across the top. The “About Us” section of a website will often indicate who the website is sponsored by.
The ending of a web address can give you clues as to the reliability of the information.
The website ending .gov means that the website is owned and operated by the government. No one but the government can use .gov so you can feel safe about the content of the website.
The website ending .edu is always affiliated with universities, colleges and educational sites. Usually you can feel safe about the trustworthiness of the content, however, many universities let students host websites using .edu, so not every website is authored by an educator.
The website ending .org was originally set up for non-profit organizations, but the designation no longer exists today. This domain extension is often used for non-profits such as schools and communities, but is also used by for-profit entities.
The website endings .com or .net are open to the public to use. Keep in mind that some websites ending in .com or .net that offer scholarly advice are trying to sell you their product.
Be alert if ...
- The website sponsor is for-profit
- The authors’ credentials are not related to the topic
- The website address ending has .com, .net or .org
Be assured if ...
- The author is qualified to discuss the subject
- The information was reviewed by a qualified person
- The web address ending has .gov or .edu