Evaluating Web Resources
- Newsletter of the BCG
Sandra MacLean Clunies, "Evaluating Web Resources,"
OnBoard 10 (May 2004): 12-13.
When is a page not a page? Can we use the same criteria
for evaluating information we find on the Web that we use
for judging the quality of books? Yes and No.
What’s the Same?
The same common sense criteria that readers use to judge
the quality of books apply to the Internet. I forgot this
during the first flush of genealogical research that took
place even before the Internet had arrived. I blissfully
photocopied book pages that later proved to be total nonsense.
I’ll bet you did, too! That’s how we all collect
We learned to ask the same questions of “hard copy”
books and publications that we now ask of for Web content.
For a lecture that I give on this topic, I received permission
from the authors of Web Wisdom: How to Evaluate and Create
Information Quality on the Web to use their helpful checklists.
I include these in the syllabus content of major conferences
at which this lecture is presented.
There are six major categories of criteria, with dozens
of questions to ask in each one.
- Authority (of a site or a page)
- Coverage and Intended Audience
- Interaction and Transaction Features
These checklists are further specialized for major types
of websites: Advocacy, Business, Informational, News. Navigational
aids and nontext features are also covered. My “hard
copy” of the book Web Wisdom was published in 1999.
Five years is a long time in the digital information age.
Fortunately, authors Janet Alexander and Marsha Ann Tate
have kept their own website current with updated links
A book cannot hit the shelves of stores or libraries without
some expense of time by an author. It may be self-published
at the author’s expense, or sent to a commercial publisher,
which will add editing and printing time and costs. Then
comes a distribution and publicity cycle to get the publication
to the readers. The length of time between a budding writer’s
germ of an idea and the final production of a book will
be months, if not years. Ask Elizabeth Shown Mills how long
it took to complete Professional Genealogy,1 and she’ll
tell you at least ten years!
A Web page can be born full blown overnight. With the
many sites offering “free” web-hosting and free
HTML conversion to subscribers or members, it costs little
extra to do and takes no particular skills to accomplish.
A few clicks on the keyboard, and a new Web page appears.
There are no distribution costs, as it is immediately accessible
to every computer on the planet with an Internet connection.
Should we then be surprised at the percentage of inaccurate
and misleading “information” that circulates
incessantly on the Web today? And in all probability, some
of that “data” can be traced to you, even if
you never uploaded it!
You have probably shared this uncomfortable experience
with me: while Web searching, you find someone has uploaded
data you gathered a decade ago. It contains errors you have
since corrected with continuing research. It may even have
your name attached as a “source.” Who did this?
Where did they get the information? Then you recall some
“snail mail” exchanges with fellow researchers
years ago. You try to e-mail this website’s author
to request removal of the material, with little satisfaction.
Some unknown person created a GEDCOM including your data
and it has been copied and circulated ever since.
You might be able to “correct” it at one website, but it will soon pop up on another one – ghosts
and gremlins that seem to have eternal life. While these
annoying appearances may seem immortal, there is also the
unsettling reality that many websites themselves are ephemeral.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
A book page and a Web page have very different lifespans.
We can easily find books that were published dozens, even
hundreds, of years ago. In an article published in the Washington
Post, writer Rick Weiss quoted Brewster Kahle, digital librarian
at the Internet Archive in San Francisco with the statement
that “the average lifespan of a Web page today is
100 days.” 2
Efforts to preserve Web content include the process of
caching by the search engine Google, which claims it has
archived billions of pages that have disappeared from the
Internet. If you get the ubiquitous “Error 404, page
not found” message when clicking on a URL, return
to the Google listing and see if the “cached”
choice is available and click on that. Hopefully, the dead
page will rise again on your screen.
At www.archive.org, the WaybackMachine may also help you
find the content from an inactive or deceased website.
When citing content found on the Web, it is critical to
include the date you saw or downloaded that information.
Future readers may then be able to resurrect the Web page
even if it has effectively “disappeared.”
Of course, we need to ask a question or two when exhuming
dead Web pages: if it was good information, why did it disappear?
Major websites with quality content tend to live longer
and remain accessible to the researcher. Libraries, archives,
genealogical societies and organizations are adding new
materials all the time. Paid staff or experienced volunteers
have created or organized the content with standards and
guidelines to assure and improve its quality and accuracy.
Some have instituted a subscription service in order to
cover their own costs of producing the online information.
I have enrolled in several subscription sites and find them
invaluable to me.
Safe and Sane Searching
It’s always exciting to discover some long-sought
information on a Web page. Perhaps it is indeed new-found
and accurate. Then again, perhaps it’s not. By using
simple checklists or guidelines we’ve already applied
to data we find in books or other publications, we can approach
the wonderful world of the Web with cautious optimism!
1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, ed., Professional Genealogy: A
Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and
Librarians (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company,
2. Rick Weiss, "On the Web, Research Work Proves
Ephemeral," The Washington Post, Washington, DC, 24
November 2003, page A08. Downloaded 24 February 2004 from
Sandra MacLean Clunies, CGSM
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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