How to Evaluate Web Data

There is a ton of information online and more are being created each day. As an idea of the scope, we’re looking at, an average of 188 million emails were sent each minute in 2019. With so much data available, can you differentiate between information and disinformation?

Anyone can create a data source online. Blogs, static business sites, internet directories, the possibilities are endless. Almost all of them are accessible to the general public. Being able to tell the difference between what is real, false, or simply misleading can be a real benefit.

It does not take much time or effort to evaluate the reliability of web data. All you need to do is keep a few guidelines or precautions in mind.

We’re entering a new world in which data may be more important than software. - Tim O’Reilly, founder, O’Reilly Media.

3 Important Guidelines To Judge If a Source Is Trustable

1. Keep an eye out for Ads

Caption: Search results can sometimes be misleading

I have seen many people make mistakes with search results. Oftentimes when browsing the net, there is a tendency to click on the first few search results we see. Although search engines like Google have done a relatively good job on sorting results, you need to keep in mind that the results given are only as good as your query was.

Also, never forget that Google is a commercial entity. It isn’t providing free services out of the goodness of its heart. Search queries can be influenced by commercial results

2. Check Data Sources

There are many factors that can come into play when evaluating web data. These range from identifying authors to validating the accuracy of the content. To those used to simply consuming everything they read, there is an urgent need to determine the reliability of sources.

To help you check if a source is reliable, you can follow a few basic rules. When considering a source, consider if it has Accuracy, Authority, Objectivity, Currency, and Purpose. These standards are quite general in fact and taught in some universities.

These five areas give you a way to reduce a large pool of potential sources into the specific ones you need. The process can greatly enhance the credibility of your writing and lead you to more accurate outcomes.

I) Accuracy

Ask Yourself: Does the source clearly list where statements or data it uses come from and are they both verifiable?

A source of information is known to be reliable when it provides references to the information presented. In this way, readers can confirm whether the information is accurate or the author's conclusions reasonable.

A page without references still may be useful as an example of the ideas of an individual, group, or business, but not as a source of factual information.

Ask Yourself: Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and other typographical errors?

Such errors not only indicate a lack of attention and effort but also can actually generate mistakes in the presentation of information. Whether the errors come from negligence or inexperience, they both put the information and writer in an unfortunate circumstance.

II) Authority

Ask Yourself: Is it clear who is responsible for the contents of the page?

It can be very helpful if you can relate the ideas you find at a site to a particular author, organization, or business. In this way, there is sort of a pedigree to the information you’re reading.

For example, if an author writes an article about the “best ways to build a bridge” - how legitimate would that information be if he/she wasn’t an experienced structural engineer or with any related experience?

Once the individual or organization responsible for the content is known, you can then begin to look at other clues to help you ascertain credentials, such as reputation or track record. Be especially wary of sites in which the author or sponsoring organization is not clearly stated.

III) Objectivity

Ask Yourself: What goals/objectives does the site you’re reading information on meet?

An objective source will contain more quality information than a heavily biased source. When viewing a website, notice any specific or implied biases. If the page is an ad or endorsement, there may be financial motives (it may be an affiliate marketing site) to provide biased information. The advertising should be clearly separated from the informational content of the site. It should be clear why the site was created and for whom.

One general guideline you can look out for is the type of domain name being used to host the site. Ideally, the domain type (TLD) should match the content on the site. For example;

.edu = educational site
.gov = government site
.com = commercial site
.org = non-profit organization site
.mil = military

IV) Currency

Ask Yourself: When was the information published or last updated?

This doesn't refer to the fiscal value of things on the site. Taking note of ‘currency’ is actually looking at the dates on the page to indicate when the information was written or published. It also helps you to ascertain when the page was first placed on the web, or if the content was ever revised.

Some information can be very time-sensitive as we know. For example, earlier in this article I mentioned that ‘an average of 188 million emails were being sent each minute’. I also made sure to mention when the time frame of the data - i.e. in 2019.

If I had failed to state the date and you were to read this article two years later, you might end up citing outdated information.

Despite the lack of updates on some websites, search engine technology is constantly being revised and new developments occur regularly. Still, a site should always provide some indication of when the information was created or the site was last updated for the readers’ reference.

V) Purpose

Ask Yourself: Why does the article exist? Is the site dedicated to teaching, selling, or entertaining?

In some cases, sites that teach or entertain often do not need to state their purpose. However, sites that seek to sell or profit somehow through its contents should always explicitly tell their readers this.

As many of you might know, content aimed at selling something may not always be the most reliable. That is the main reason why commercial websites often have disclaimers clearly stated on the site - as a form of liability mitigation.

3. Take a Hard Look at the Source Site

Aside from assessing the data itself, another thing which can be helpful is to take a critical eye to the site it’s hosted on. Of course, this can be a bit subjective but from an overall snapshot, the design of a site will usually give away its purpose.

The quality of a website can also determine how well information is presented. Most quality authors won’t be caught dead publishing on sub-standard websites. To assess this, you can follow some general guidelines such as:

I) Accessibility

It is important that a website is as universally accessible as possible. For a website to be highly accessible, it should load quickly, be viewable in a few browsers, and at varying display resolutions without ‘breaking’.

II) Design & Layout

A good web design serves multiple purposes. Aside from the fact that it contributes to the general performance of the site, it can also be reflective of the quality of the site itself. Reputable websites usually invest effort and time in their designs to ensure visual appeal, functionality, and ease of navigation.

A good design can help to compliment the purpose of the website giving it a more unified look and feel. This can be reflected in how seamless the workings of the site feel like to its users.

III) Content

Aside from the earlier guidelines we mentioned about the content itself, another way is to gauge the effectiveness of it in relation to the site it is hosted on. For example, the content should match the intended audience that the site in general draws.

IV) Technological Aspects

A strong website is usually highly functional and offers users a good experience. In this, it’s important to take into account the format of the site in general and again, whether that matches the intent and audience.

Message and bulletin boards, surveys, videos, games, online tests, audio selections, chat rooms, broadcasting, and search technologies are just a few of the ways technology can be used to give off the right ‘vibe’.

V) Creativeness / Originality

Creative and original websites can be more fun to use because of their originality. A good website is distinguishable from other websites and should give you something that you can't find elsewhere. It should be different and memorable and give a good overall impression.

Final Thoughts

Evaluating web data doesn't have to be a daunting task, but it is a necessary one.

Yes, there might be more steps you should undertake to ensure that the information you obtain is credible, however, this often doesn’t take up excessive amounts of time. If you keep up the consistent work of fact-checking your information regularly, it will become second nature as you consume content on the web.

The most important factor, perhaps, is your ability to not be easily led by whatever you read. Always yourself if what you’re reading is legitimate. A natural inquisitiveness can go a long way to eradicating misinformation.