Anyone can express an opinion online, and there is plenty opinion to go around -- as of March 2012, there were nearly 650 million active Web sites, and that number grows every day [source: Bort]. So, if you don't stick with the same handful of trusted sites, how can you know if what you're reading is believable or bogus? Where do you go to find out more about the giant alligators living in the sewers of New York City? There are ways, and they don't all have to do with Googling the answer.
But, yes, you can Google the author or the Web site and see what turns up. That's never a bad idea, because it gives you instant results about the experiences others have had; word of mouth goes a long way in establishing credibility. We often rely on the experiences and opinions of our friends and family when we're forming our own opinion, whether we're looking for a reliable contractor to work on our home or a new columnist to read online. But the search engine strategy aside, there are also a few additional things that might quickly clue you in to a site that's biased or counterfeit. By using your intuition and following some basic rules of thumb, you'll be well on your way to spotting whether or not that e-mail from Citibank is legit (tip: if it asks for your social security number, it's not) or if someone's telling tall tales when you read that President Harry S. Truman didn't have a middle name (it's true; the "S." doesn't stand for anything) [source: Snopes].
Let's begin our list of tips to help you find quality online material, every time, with the importance of making a first impression.
First impressions are meaningful, and your first impression of a Web site shouldn't leave you wondering if anyone considered usability or visual appeal before they launched it, nor should the site remind you of the pre-Google Internet days of the late 1990s. (For that matter, the site's last update should be more recent than 1998). There shouldn't be an endless series of persistent pop-up ads or random use of many mismatched fonts. Sure, there are some sleek and slick sites out there that are total frauds in the content and product departments, but most scammers don't often spend a lot of time on a site's look and feel, the quality of images or even an "about" section. Professional Web sites have a consistent look and feel, a cohesive design across pages as well as quality, high-resolution graphics and an easy-to-use interface. And if you want to know more, a professional site will almost always have an "about" section to explain their services or site to you and a contact section if you need to get in touch with them.
The look and feel of a Web page is important in establishing its legitimacy, but even the most professional-looking site might find its credibility tarnished when the copy is riddled with typos and misspelled words, or if you do a little fact checking and easily find several errors. Credible content has a balanced perspective, it's honest, and the language used sounds professional without being loaded with marketing buzzwords. An online entrepreneur in the U.K. found that just one misspelled word on a site can make a huge impact, especially when it comes to online sales -- just one typo can cost a company as much as 50 percent of sales revenue [source: Coughlan].
If something seems too good to be true, well, you know how the saying goes, right? If you can't verify where the content originated, such as the findings of a study published in a scholarly journal, or if you can't seem to find similar information anywhere else, chances are pretty good what you've gotten into isn't legit, or at the very least it's misleading. Most credible journalists and the media companies they work for rely on at least two confirmed sources to back up all the facts they report, and that includes everything from untimely celebrity deaths to whether or not the new "Obamacare" laws require every American to be implanted with a microchip [source: Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism].
And what about when not only sources are missing, but author information also? We'll talk about that next.
One important detail in discerning whether or not the content you're reading online is fake not fact is who authored it.
First, look at the byline: Is the author's name given? Without the name of the author it's difficult to determine where the content came from, and whether or not the author is a credible source on the topic. If there is an author or byline given, consider the author's credentials. Does the author have appropriate degrees or professional experience? Does the author disclose whether or not he or she may have a conflict of interest (the author of health-related content, for example, may be qualified to review a new drug, but did the author also receive research funding from a pharmaceutical company manufacturing the drug)? Know who your source is.
Consumer reviews are an important part of our online shopping experience, whether we're window shopping for a new espresso machine or looking to book a hotel for an upcoming vacation. You know when reviews aren't helpful, though? When companies pay writers to post fake glowing reviews and five-star ratings. Skirt the issue by reading reviews across multiple Web sites; it's not the same crowd on every travel review site, for instance. And it's also good policy to give a little less credence to the most extreme reviews -- the very highest ratings and the very lowest ratings may contain interesting bits of information, but it's the average reviews and ratings that will tell you the most common complaints and compliments about the product or service.
If you think you can spot a fake review nine times out of 10, think again. Researchers at Cornell University found that we're only able to identify fake-positive reviews about 12 percent of the time, so chances are good you'll fall for a fake one of these days. But those same researchers have taken what we can't do and created software that can: In fact, it's 90 percent accurate in spotting fake reviews [source: King]. What have they spotted about reviews that we can borrow to evaluate them better? It's subtle, but the difference is in the key words used in the reviews. Real reviewers, are most likely to include words such as "small" and "bathroom" in their reviews, for example, whereas fake reviews often give themselves away with more marketing-friendly words like "my," "vacation," "hotel," and "experience" [source: Ott].
If you're conducting business online, including banking or shopping online with your credit card, you expect your information will be securely transmitted. We don't even need to get into finances, though, because you also expect something as simple as the password to your inbox to be sent securely when you log in. How can you know? There are two easy ways to tell if the Web page you're on is a secure page.
First, look at the URL in the address bar in your browser. URLs that begin with https are secure; pages beginning with http are not. Second, depending on which browser you use, you can look for the lock. It differs from browser to browser but a lock icon will appear in either in the address bar (before the https) or in one of the lower corners of the browser window. Click on the lock and you'll learn all the security details about that Web page.
Some search engines use algorithms to determine and weed out low value sites, helping you find the most genuine information out there based on your search terms, while others rely on the popularity of a page to determine how it ranks against your search terms. Popularity, though, doesn't necessarily mean something's factual; it could just be a well-told tale.
Not all search engine results are created equal, either. There are also paid advertisements that sit above the organic search results the search engine finds based on your search terms. Google, for example, places relevant paid ads above relevant organic search results, and a subtle background color change may be the only thing that catches your attention to indicate any difference between what is paid content and what is not. There is normally a line of text that states that the results are ads, but on a page full of text-based results, that's easy to overlook. A fraudulent or ill-informed Web site can just as easily bid into ad positions and work its way into top search results just as genuine Web sites do, making it difficult to know for sure if the number one site in a search result listing is bogus or not.
When you evaluate a Web site for credibility, don't overlook its domain name.
Domain names that are restricted include .edu, which means this site is operated by an educational institution, .mil, which means this site is operated by the U.S. military, and .gov, which are government-operated Web sites. Government-operated Web sites include sites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Association (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and these sites are considered credible, as are military sites such as the Department of Defense (DOD). Sites operated by educational institutions may or may not be credible -- who the author is makes or breaks an .edu as a credible resource. If what you're reading was written by a professor or researcher at a college or university, the content is probably reliable; student Web pages and blogs are not.
That leaves the rest: Anyone can own and operate a Web site on a .com, .net, .info, .org and a whole long list of other domain names, which means these domain names don't really tell us much of anything about whether or not what you're reading is bunk. Checking the domain name can tell you, though, if you're on the correct site -- some bogus Web sites use domain names very similar to brand names you trust. By double checking the domain name you'll catch any typos you may have made entering the URL, as well as verify you haven't been redirected to another domain without notification.
Wondering if what you're reading is legit but you just can't seem to verify it? Luckily there are other people out there fighting the fight against Internet untruths and urban legends, and fact-checking Web sites may have already done the leg-work for you. For example, Snopes happens to be one of the longest-running and most popular myth busting sites, and is considered a good place to begin for debunking such things as the myth that Twinkies have no expiration date, as well as getting to the bottom of those Facebook privacy notices. And for political junkies, FactCheck can set the story straight about what a certain senator is saying about Social Security or which details about health care reform are true and which are false.
Quality online brands include sites operated by university or local libraries, hospitals, medical schools and research centers -- these are the big names such as the Cornell University Library or Harvard Medical School. They include the newspapers, magazines and blogs we read, and all our favorite products. These are the names most of us will recognize as being experts in the field; we trust information from these experts online because we trust their established offline reputations.
So what should you do when you find yourself wondering, "Maybe this guy has a point -- what site is this, anyway?" When you don't immediately recognize where you've wound up online, you'll want to get some bearings: Go to the site's main page. A Web site's home page may not be the most important page on the site, but it may be the most useful when you're looking for credibility cues, such as a company name or contact information.
Conventional wisdom says your hair 'gets used to' whatever shampoo you're using. HowStuffWorks explores whether this old myth holds up like hairspray.
Author's Note: 10 Signs What You're Reading Online Is Bogus
To do my job well means I do a lot of online research, and since I do a lot of research I spend a lot of time determining whether or not a site is a solid, credible source of information or if it's just a bunch of hooey. In my own experience I've found that sticking with those three basic steps -- using intuition, heuristics and a little bit of strategy -- gets the best results, and it gets to be second-nature after you practice it a few times.
More Great Links
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