Beyond Google

The Credibility Question

Amazon.com's Alexa service tells you how popular a site is, what other sites link to it, and how long it has been around.
Amazon.com's Alexa service tells you how popular a site is, what other sites link to it, and how long it has been around.
Whenever you find information on the Web, you have to determine the source's trustworthiness. The Web makes it easy for people to create fake companies, bogus think tanks, fictional surveys--and even fly-by-night universities, as in a recent case in England, where employers and students were fooled by "university" Web sites unrelated to any real university. Yet investigating a source's credibility can be tough, especially if you're new to a topic.

Always look for an "about us" link, a physical address, and a phone number. While the lack of an "about us" section presents a red flag, the absence of a privacy policy should raise a yellow flag, according to Chris Sherman, author of The Invisible Web (with Gary Price) and creator of the Invisible Web Directory.

"Approach a Web site the same way you would a magazine or book," he says. "A quick skim should tell you, 'Who are these people and what do they say about themselves?'" To find out who owns a Web site (including a physical street address and contact person, sometimes with phone number), plug the domain name in a site like Geektools, which queries the whois database of domain name registrations. Similar sites include Better-Whois.com for U.S. sites that end in .com, .org, or .net, as well as Allwhois for global sites. To find IP addresses, try ARIN's Whois or the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority for those outside North America.

Distinguish the Web's good information from its bad by researching at The Virtual Chase.
Distinguish the Web's good information from its bad by researching at The Virtual Chase.
Amazon.com-owned Alexa helps you identify a page's traffic, how long it has been online, and how many sites link to it, for example. But while this works well for big commercial sites or associations (such as The League of Women Voters), it won't help much with small-business names or obscure groups.

Finally, for an extensive list of links to groups that seek to educate the public about bad information on the Internet, hate information, and online scams, visit The Virtual Chase: Legal Research on the Internet. After all, "forewarned is forearmed" was never truer than with the Web.

Laurianne McLaughlin is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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