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Search Engine Savvy: Evaluating Websites

How do you find things online? Chances are you're using Google. According to Search Engine Watch and Mashable approximately 65% of online searches take place via Google. While Google is the most popular, Yahoo and Bing are gaining ground as the second and third most used search engines respectively.

How do you find information for assignments in your online courses? Finding appropriate resources for use in your courses can be challenging. It’s important to remember that anyone can create a website and publish content. This content may or may not be of any value to you for academic use. Developing both knowledge about how search engines work and skills in website evaluation will help you make decisions about how you search and use the results.

Analytics and Algorithms

How does Google help you find what you are looking for? With an unknown number of sites available on the Internet, estimated in the billions, this is no small feat. This How Google Works video presentation (3:14) from the Google team is helpful. When you enter your search words, the Google system very quickly identifies the sites that may be most relevant to you. This selection takes place using a series of formulas and is based on Google's index of "billions" of sites. Google conducts its own evaluation of quality and relevance of each site to your search.

Your search results will not necessarily look like my search results. Take a look at this recent TEDTalk video presentation (9:05) titled Beware Online Filter Bubbles. The speaker offers one explanation for why our search results may be different and how they are personalized based on a number of factors including location, browser, etc. We each end up with a list that has been filtered for us and may result in incomplete coverage of all of the information available online.

Conduct Your Own Evaluation

Since there is a lot of inaccurate, irrelevant, and out-of-date information on the Internet how can you tell what is "good" to use? Most public websites are not reviewed or approved in any way. After a search engine makes the first cut you will need to do the rest of the screening. When you choose to use a particular resource for a school project or paper, including it in your reference list or bibliography, you are essentially giving it your stamp of approval. By choosing to include it you are indicting that you have reviewed the material and found it to be a worthy source of information. Below is a brief checklist to help you with the key elements of conducting a website evaluation:


  • Authors – Who are the authors or sponsors of the information presented? You may or may not be familiar with the source already. If you are not familiar with the source, investigate further.
  • Authority – Is there any evidence of the author's authority to present information on the topic? Look for more detailed information about the author's credentials and expertise related to the site's topic.
  • Address – What type of website is it? Look closely at the website address – different types of organizations use different types of address extensions. Some of the most commonly used extensions are: Government (.gov), Education (.edu), company (.com), and organization (.org). Keep in mind that there are not strict rules for the use of extensions and there are new ones being created to allow for new web addresses (.co, .info, .net). You may also be able to tell the location of the website's sponsor by the extension (.uk, .fr, .it, .in).


  • Goal – What is the goal of the website? Many sites are persuasive in nature. Is the site's primary purpose to advertise a product, provide information, or collect data?
  • Audience – Who is the target audience? As you review the website content, who are they talking to and how are they saying it? The tone, approach, and vocabulary of the website could be directed at a particular group of website users. The Cornell University Library suggests considering each site as you would a television commercial – is the product (content) right for you?


  • Revisions – How recently was the website revised? Many sites include information about when the site was last modified. Look for this somewhere near the bottom of the page, or at the most recent post of the site is a blog format.
  • Copyright – Does the website have a copyright? Look at the bottom of the page for a year when the site was copyrighted. This is not always included, but can provide you with an idea of the age of the content if it is available.
  • Updates – What new information may be available since the website was published? Older material is not necessarily irrelevant. It all depends on the kind of information you are searching for, so consider continuing your search for more recent publications on the topic.
  • Links – Are the links within the website working? Multiple broken links can be a sign of a page that is not current or well maintained.


  • Approach – What kind of information is on the website? Does the site present facts or opinion? Are references included that you can also explore?
  • Relevance – Is the content relevant to your project or paper topic? Don't rely solely on your initial search results. Take a closer look at each website – your keywords may match, but the overall topic of the page may not.
  • Accuracy – Is the information accurate? This can be more difficult to judge. Consider all of the items listed above – source, purpose, and currency. Cross check facts and numbers with other sites and references.

Other Ways to Search

Google's main search engine can be a good place to start, but it is limited in a number of ways. For college level course work you'll need to expand your search beyond popular websites to include academic references.

Google Scholar – Google offers an alternative search option specifically designed for searching academic publications. Google Scholar indexes scholarly publications that are available online. The search results can be limited to article abstracts, since full text articles are not always available online. Academic publishing is changing, and you will find some articles published more openly, but an article's abstract can help you decide whether or not to pursue a search for the full-text version.

Online Libraries and Databases – Your online school should provide you with access to an online library that includes searchable databases. These databases include subscriptions to various academic publications that your school has acquired for your use. The databases are similar to search engines and allow you to search for information with keywords, titles, author names, etc. Don’t forget to work with your online librarians! They have expertise in the challenges associated with searching for scholarly references. The librarians are there to help you find what you are looking for and suggest search techniques to help you fine-tune your research.

Local Public Libraries – You may also have a library in your local area where you can go and speak with a librarian in person. Your local public library may also be able to provide you with access to additional databases. Check with the Reference Desk for more information about the assistance that is available. Public libraries are also online! Take a look at what the New York Public Library is currently offering.

Refine Your Search!

As an online student you will need to rely on online information to help you prepare for your course work and assignments. The Internet makes a world of information available to us around the clock. Evaluating the value of this information and selecting appropriate material to work with involves skill. As with any skill, you'll get better at evaluating and selecting with practice. Take advantage of all of the resources available to you as you refine your search!

May 5th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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