Caveat Emptor Applies On Line

Computer Life column for 11/22/97 by
Richard Gordon


Monday, a colleague asked if I knew of a reputable Web source for children's toys.

Tuesday, a faculty member asked for some pointers to reliable Web sites in an area he researches.

I'm frequently asked if I really send my credit card number to Web merchants.

These are all variations of the same question: How do you know if you can trust a Web site?

If you go to a bookstore or library, you assume that the material you are browsing has had some kind of editorial review. Someone has invested significant time and effort into publishing the book, monograph, magazine or newspaper you are looking at.

But Web pages are different. Anybody can put up a Web site in ten minutes.

Craig Branham of Saint Louis University reminds his students that "The Web presents a host of new challenges to researchers accustomed to the more rational world of the library stacks. Web sites are not organized like books in a library... there is no central organization in place to enforce quality or editorial standards.... [F]inished prose mixes freely with conversation, art with advertising, and careful research with reckless hearsay" (www.slu.edu/departments/english/research/).

Richard Terrass of Massachusetts General Hospital cites John December's 1994 comments about the "patterns of peer review" for Web information (web.wn.net/~usr/ricter/web/valid.html). December points out that some Web documents are not reviewed for accuracy, others are reviewed in a chaotic "maelstrom of comment and critique," and others are reviewed in the traditional way-by experts in a given discipline.

The librarians at Bowdoin College suggest their students use five "A" words when evaluating a Web site: Accuracy, Availability, Accessibility, Accountability, and Artistry (www.bowdoin.edu/dept/library/internet/eval/index.html).

The journal From Now On devoted part of its June 1997 issue to strategies teachers can use to help students sort through the "Info-Glut and Info-Garbage" to get to reliable, accurate, authoritative, objective, and up-to-date information resources (fromnowon.org/jun97/eval.html).

One of the best sources of information on evaluating Web sites is maintained by Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate, reference librarians at Widener University (www.science.widener.edu/~withers/webeval.htm). They offer advice about evaluating the content of different types of Web pages-e.g., marketing, news, informational-and how to differentiate between them.

What it boils down to is that you have to be careful when you find information on the Web. Is that "nutritional information" coming to you from a researcher at Tufts University or from a company that sells "nutritional supplements"?

Is that speed rating for that computer you covet the result of an independent test or the result of a test run by the manufacturer?

A lot of experienced Web surfers develop a subset of "trusted" sites that they visit repeatedly. For example, since there is no Internet Better Business Bureau, when I'm deciding where to make an on-line purchase, I rely on referrals from Web sites I've come to trust: Magellan's 4-star sites (www.mckinley.com), Lycos's Top 5% of the Web (www.lycos.com), and, recently, Binary Compass Enterprises' Bizrate site (www.bizrate.com).

Pierre Salinger's reputation will never recover from his pronouncement last year that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile-based on what he read on the Net. This month, the person spreading that rumor admitted he was mistaken, and the FBI concluded there was no attack.

Because anyone can make an attractive and enticing Web site that appears to be an authoritative source of information or merchandise, savvy Web surfers learn to verify information when they're shopping, browsing, or doing research.


Copyright © 1997, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to richard@inet.net, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.