The Internet is a wonderful tool for writers, but it can also be a curse. It’s got everything from craft to submission to research. The trick is to winnow the good information from the chaff, and not get trapped for hours in a web of bad links.
I typed in “what to do about writer’s block” and got a ton of advice. But which website has the best information? How to check its efficacy, especially if you are doing research?
Is it a reputable site with clearly labeled credentials?
If you’re looking up crime information, start with the FBI’s website. Why here? The Federal Bureau of Investigation is one of the most well-known law enforcement agencies in the world. Their reputation precedes them.
Any website that can’t or won’t tell you anything about who designed it or is running it probably isn’t worth your trust. The FBI lets it all hang out. They don’t hide their contact information. They post serious publications. And you can sign up for nifty email updates on law enforcement topics.
Look at the URL – is the domain a .gov or .edu or .org?
.com is the usual domain for businesses. If the site is selling something, chances are information you find there is for marketing purposes. It might be good content, for example from a pest control company that has expertise in rodent elimination. But information out of the scope of the organization may not be reliable.
.edu is a university or college, .gov is government, .mil military, and .org is organization, usually non-profit.
Is the website well-designed, and is there a contact for the webmaster?
Visit some of the sites at Web Pages that Suck. Would you trust the information you found on these? How do you know it’s not faked by some troll from his mother’s basement? Beware also of websites filled with ads. There’s probably nothing there you need.
Is the information verifiable and are there citations? Is it recent?
You can double-check information across several different places. Any publications posted should have Works Cited lists backed up by authoritative sources. Academic publications are also subject to peer scrutiny, which verifies the solidity of research. University students can get access to educational databases that contain lots of peer-reviewed papers and journal articles. Check with the university library.
Any research older than five years from the current date may not be applicable, depending on the field of study. Less than that and you’re probably okay. Wikipedia is a good start, but because anyone can edit it, it’s not generally accepted as a source. Check the links at the bottom of articles for something you can cite.
How is the tone of the website? Is it professional, or declamatory? Does it come off as strident or hateful?
If you’re looking up effective cancer treatments, it’s probably safe to discount a website that tells you “An Amazon shaman invented this substance many years ago! Has cured everyone it touches!” Others aren’t so easy.
An example one of my professors in college used was a professionally-designed website containing derogatory content about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At first glance it appeared educational. Reading it told a different story. Although it was well-written, it dripped with bigotry. It was hate speech masquerading as research. Not acceptable source material, unless you were using it to illustrate racism.
Does the website ask for any personal or financial information to access content? If so, run away.
This is not the same as free registration to use a site. And some subscription sites like Ancestry.com that perform a service are okay. They will tell you exactly what you are getting and have privacy policies and contact information.
When in doubt, try Googling “[site name] scam” or “complaints.” You may then evaluate the warnings and go from there.
Once you spend some time navigating around good ones like Mayo Clinic and How Stuff Works, you’ll get a feel for how a reputable website looks and smells. Now the only other thing to avoid is wasting time surfing when you’re supposed to be writing.
Back to work!