Meeting the Challenge of Critically Evaluating Information on the Internet and the World Wide Web
Karen Hartman Ernest Ackermann
James Monroe Center
Department of Computer Science
Mary Washington College Mary Washington College
Presented at Educom 98 , Orlando,  Florida, on October 15, 1998
Content last updated January 24, 2005

Introduction | Evaluate Your Needs | Information Sources & Tips | Basic Search Strategy | Evaluating and Verifying Resources

Critical thinking skills have always been important to the process of searching for and using information from media such as books, journal articles, radio broadcasts, television reports, and so forth. With the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web, these skills have become even more crucial. Traditional books and journal articles need to pass some kind of editorial scrutiny before being published. Web pages, however, can appear without a single person ever reading them through to check for accuracy. Libraries have collection development policies that govern what material they will and will not buy; the Internet and Web, having no such policies, collect anything. This isn't to say that there isn't quality on the Internet. There are thousands of high caliber Web pages and well-regarded databases. In order to find these quality resources, we must make it our responsibility to

The First Step: Evaluate Your Information Needs Before you get online and start your search for information, think about what types of material you're looking for. A reference book in your library may have the information you need and you'll find it more quickly. It may seem that the Web would contain all the information that you require but this is not always the case. Types of Information Most Likely Found on the Internet and World Wide Web Some Reasons Why the World Wide Web Won't Have Everything You Are Looking For

Information Sources Available on the Web

Directories Proprietary Databases Library Catalogs
Virtual Libraries Search Engines Email Discussion Groups
Specialized Databases Meta-Search Tools Usenet News

Directories or Subject Catalogs

Virtual Libraries

Specialized Databases
  • Specialized databases can be comprehensive collections of hyperlinks in a particular subject area or self-contained indexes that are searchable and available on the Web.
  • ProFusion, at, accesses specialized databases and directories.

Proprietary or Commercial Databases
  • Proprietary or commercial databases charge a subscription fee to use. 
  • Proprietary databases have certain value-added features that databases in the public domain do not have, for example, databases on FirstSearch, , have links to library holdings information. This way you can find out which libraries own the materials that are indexed.
  • Proprietary databases also allow you to download information easily. For instance, Dow Jones Interactive, , includes financial information that is commonly free to the public, but it charges for the use of its database because it has made it much easier for the user to download the information to a spreadsheet program.
  • Proprietary databases often index material that others do not. The information is distinguished by its uniqueness, its historical value, or its competitive value. For example, Dialog, includes difficult-to-find private company financial information and Infotrac's Searchbank and Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, contain the full-text of hundreds of journal articles. 
  • Proprietary database systems are more responsible to their users. Because they cost money, they are more apt to provide training and other user support, such as distributing newsletters that update their services. 
  • There are also databases on the Web that are free to the public but charge if you want the full text of the articles indexed. The Electric Library, and Northern Light, , are examples of this type of database.
Search Engines

Meta-search Tools
  • Meta-search tools allow you to use several search engines; often simultaneously. 
  • They take your query, search several databases or search engines simultaneously, and then integrate the results. 
  • Examples of meta-search tools are MetaCrawler, , and Ixquick,
  • An annotated list of meta-search tools is available at See the Using the World Wide Web for Research, , for more details.

Library Catalogs on the Web 
  • Libraries have often been at the forefront of making resources available through the Internet, and thousands of libraries allow Internet and Web access to their catalogs of holdings. 
  • Some resources for library catalogs accessible on the World Wide Web are LibDex, The Library Index,,  and Libweb,

Email Discussion Groups
  • Email discussion groups are sometimes called interest groups, listserv, or mailing lists. Internet users join, contribute to, and read messages to the entire group through email. Several thousand different groups exist. 
  • Several services let you search for discussion groups. One is Catalyst,

Usenet Newsgroups
  • Usenet newsgroups are collections of group discussions, questions, answers, and other information shared through the Internet. The messages are called articles and are grouped into categories called newsgroups. The newsgroups number in the thousands, with tens of thousands of articles posted daily. 
  • Many search engines include the option of searching archives of Usenet articles, and some services-such as Google Groups, , keep large archives of Usenet articles.

Learn the Features and Capabilities of a Search Tool or Service

Common Search Features:
Implied Boolean operators
  • use + to require a term be present, +term means term must be present
  • use - to exclude a term, -term means term must not be present
  • use two quotation marks to enclose a phrase, terms must appear in the order given; for example "gibson acoustic guitar"
  • use * (a wildcard symbol) to represent different endings for a word; for example comput* would be used to match terms computer, computing, computers, computation

Basic Search Strategy: The Ten Steps

The following list provides a guideline for you to follow in formulating search requests, viewing search results, and modifying search results. These procedures can be followed for virtually any search request, from the simplest to the most complicated. For some search requests, you may not want or need to go through a formal search strategy. If you want to save time in the long run, however, it's a good idea to follow a strategy, especially when you're new to a particular search engine.

A basic search strategy can help you get used to each search engine's features and how they are expressed in the search query. Following the 10 steps will also ensure good results if your search is multifaceted and you want to get the most relevant results.

  1. Identify the important concepts of your search.
  2. Choose the keywords that describe these concepts.
  3. Determine whether there are synonyms, related terms, or other variations of the keywords that should be included.
  4. Determine which search features may apply, i.e., truncation, proximity operators, Boolean operators, etc.
  5. Choose a search engine.
  6. Read the search instructions on the search engine's home page. Look for sections entitled help, advanced search, frequently asked questions, etc.
  7. Create a search expression, using syntax, which is appropriate for the search engine.
  8. Evaluate the results. Are the results relevant to your query?
  9. Modify your search if needed. Go back to steps 2-4 and revise your query accordingly.
  10. Try the same search in a different search engine, following steps 5-9 above.
Search Tips

For multi-faceted searches a full-text database is best. For a search involving one facet like a person's name or a phrase without stop words, search engines that provide keyword indexing will be sufficient.

After determining whether your search has yielded too few Web pages (low recall), there are several things to consider:

If your search has given you too many results with many not on the point of your topic (high recall, low precision), consider the following:


Information on the World Wide Web About Evaluating Resources

Evaluating and Verifying Resources

When we access or retrieve something on the Internet we need to be able to decide whether the information is useful, reliable, or appropriate for our purposes. Guidelines
Who is the author or institution?
  • If the author is a person, does the resource give biographical information? 
  • If the author is an institution, is there information provided about it? 
  • Have you seen the author's or institution's name cited in other sources or bibliographies? 
  • The URL can give clues to the authority of a source. A tilde ~ in the URL usually indicates that it is a personal page rather than part of an institutional Web site.
How current is the information?
  • Is there a date on the Web page that indicates when the page was placed on the Web? 
  • Is it clear when the page was last updated? 
  • Is some of the information obviously out-of-date? 
  • Does the page creator mention how frequently the material is updated 
Who is the audience?
  • Is the Web page intended for the general public, scholars, practitioners, children, etc.? Is this clearly stated? 
  • Does the Web page meet the needs of its stated audience?
Is the content accurate and objective?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, or institutional biases? 
  • Is the content intended to be a brief overview of the information or an in-depth analysis? 
  • If the information is opinion is this clearly stated? 
  • If there is information copied from other sources is this acknowledged? Are there footnotes if necessary?
What is the purpose of the information?
  • Is the purpose of the information to inform, explain, persuade, market a product, or advocate a cause? 
  • Is the purpose clearly stated? 
  • Does the resource fulfill the stated purpose?

Some techniques you can apply to help with evaluation:

Who is the author or institution?

 Look for the name of the author or institution at the top or bottom of a Web page. Go to the home page for the site that hosts the information to find out about the organization. You do this by extracting the first part of the URL - the part starting with http:// up to the first slash (/).  
Domain Description
.edu educational (anything from serious research to zany student pages)
.gov governmental (usually dependable)
.com commercial (may be trying to sell a product)
.net network (may provide services to commercial or individual customers)
.org organization (non-profit institutions; may be biased)

How current is the information?

Presented October 15, 1998, Educom 98 Orlando Florida
Content last updated January 24, 20054

Karen Hartman
Ernest Ackermann

Title: Evaluating Information on the Internet and the Web

Other places to visit:   Internet & Web Essentials: What You Need to Know Searching and Researching  on the Internet and the World Wide Web