Authenticating Resources on the Internet

OK, so you’ve read our Internet Searching Tips, been to Google, Duck Duck Go, Bing or the like, and learned you have several—if not hundreds of—thousands of matches for your search.

Some you can toss out right away just by the completely irrelevant title or description of the site. You scan through the list and find a few good prospects to try. Now, how do you determine whether the information at the other end of the link is the best available—or at the least, correct?

First, check the spelling of the domain of each file you’d like to view. You may have heard of the problem with deceptive web sites. Believe it. Many web sites are set up to either sound or be spelled like some well-known organization in order to capitalize on the legitimate organization’s name recognition and community respect. It’s a time-honored advertising practice used by legitimate and illegitimate organizations alike, but in the days of the internet, software and sophisticated programmers, persons who are out to deceive the casual web surfer can easily do just that.

Verifying the Source:

There are several questions to ask and levels of authentication you can perform. From the most simple to the most complex and thorough, they are:

1. Does the site name "seem" to be legitimate?

Dissect the website address to find the "top level" domain (.gov, .com, .net, .org, .edu, .uk, etc.) and the domain name itself ("Yahoo" from http://www.Yahoo.com for example). Take these two together to see if they seem to correspond. Most large companies have the web site address you’d expect, such as Nike.com for Nike, Adidas.com for Adidas, UPS.com for United Parcel Service. Here is a short listing of the most common top-level domain designations:

.biz Newer, less used version of .com. Open to anyone.
.com A "commercial" site in registered in the United States, but not necessarily by a US citizen. The first and most widely used public domain. Registration is open to any entity or individual.
.edu The domain named used exclusively for educational institutions, mostly colleges and universities. (Educause is the overseeing body)
.gov Domain level reserved for official US government sites. Managed by the US Gen. Svcs. Admin. at dotgov.gov
.info Another newer less used top-level domain open to anyone.
.net An open registration domain meant for providers of electronic networks, but used by anyone.
.org An open domain once intended for organizations with domains that did not fit in other categories. Widely used by non-profits, but not always!
.us A two letter Country-Code Top Level domain (ccTLD) indicating the United States. Mostly used for local governmental sites, such as a county (www.co.honolulu.hi.us) or school district (www.beaverton.k12.or.us), but recently opened to anyone with significant ties (as in a resident) to the United States. See below for more on Country Codes
.ca Canadian sites, not necessarily governmental. The governing body, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority is found at: http://cira.ca/. Currently, a whois is available in the upper right of the page.

Recently, many country codes have "opened" up registration to anyone, trying to capitalize on their catchy abbreviations. Have you seen any of these?

Belize .bz (Business)
Western Samoa .ws (Web Site)
Cocos Keeling Islands
(an Australian territory)
.cc (community college, credit card, chat club, etc.
–according to their website.)
Montserrat .ms (microsoft)
Tuvalu .tv (Television)

A pretty good listing of ccTLDs is available at: https://www.norid.no/en/domenenavnbaser/domreg/

Most countries do not add a .com (or .co) before their country code, so that AirCanada.com in the US is AirCanada.ca in Canada, but some countries do, such as in the UK: amazon.co.uk.

Much more information on, domain names can be found at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) site, top level domains page:

http://www.icann.org/tlds/

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is responsible for international sites, and the country codes can be found:

http://www.iana.org/cctld/

If it’s a US government site, the domain name should be ".gov," however, more and more governmental entities are setting up ".com" sites as well, take for example the State of Oregon’s official traffic information site: www.tripcheck.com

2. Were you redirected?

When you type in "www.apple.ca,"(Apple Computer—Canada) for example, your browser is redirected to "www.apple.com/ca/." You’ll need to have the "address" line visible in your browser to check this. Most times forwarding is just a housekeeping function of the company as it has grown and reorganized its web site and knows that references to an old address are widespread.

However, if a hacker or someone with less than honorable intentions has gotten to the site, you may be redirected to a different site having nothing to do with what you thought you were after (or what the person who posted the link intended). Redirection will also commonly occur if you have reached a site no longer in operation, but most times, these are generally forwarded to a site asking you if you want to buy that domain name, now that it’s available again, and offer some sort of search option, topic directory, or "link farm".

3. Does the site look and feel the way you might expect it to?

If you are trying to visit ESPN.com and get a blank page with few words and no pictures, or explicit photos, something is probably wrong. You may have made a typo, chosen the wrong link, or it could be a temporary "takeover" by a hacker. In any case, you’ll need to double check your work! As a very broad rule of thumb, if you go to a large national corporation’s web site, expect it to "look" more professional than, say, a university’s research department, or a local county emergency information page. Marketing is what corporations do.

Don’t necessarily be put off by the lack of design or sophistication of any given site. While a well built, easily navigated "pretty" site is inviting to use, some of the most informative and useful sites are very simple, without headers or graphics, and often, just straight text on a blank background. On the other hand, some of the fanciest sites are missing real content and clear navigation, and once you wait forever for the page to load, you discover you need to download some mysterious software version you thought you already had before they’ll even let you in. (Hint: sometimes, you can hit "Cancel" in your browser while the page is loading and just the text will load.)

Here is an interesting article from Consumer Reports Web Watch and Stanford University titled How Do People Evaluate a Web Site’s Credibility? It describes how the majority of web users assign credibility largely based on how the site looks vs. what content the site contains.

4. Does the site contain contact information?

At the very least, the page you are visiting should have some sort of reference on it, or a link to a home page, contact page, information page, etc. Look for the author’s name, affiliation, organization, SOMETHING! If you can’t find some sort of attribution for something you’d like to cite, the best practice is to not use it at all. Most legitimate organizations will have a page (or area on the home page) that gives such information as street address, city, state, country, phone number, email address, contact personnel, etc. If you’d like, take this information and plug it into your local phone directory site (such as DexKnows.com or Yellow.com) to see if you can validate it.

5. Have other sites linked to the site you are researching?

Just like in real life, word of mouth advertising on the net works wonders. Just think of all those web-videos you’ve gotten in your email. Anyway, if you have found a reference on a web site that seems slightly obscure, you can go to Google or Bing and perform a link search (type "link: " in the search field: "link:www.DomainName.com") to see what other web sites have linked to the site or page in question. Click on one or two of the results to see what others are saying about the site you are researching. If there is a pattern of comments (good or bad), you might be on to something. (Note, currently the search engines aren’t recognizing this type of search. We’re looking for a workaround!)

6. How does the site "earn its living"?

Again, just like in the "non-cyber" world, entities generally don’t exist in a vacuum. Most .com sites you visit are offering something for sale. It may be a book (like AdultStudent.com), advertising, a service, or some other product. Many .org sites sell products, too, but many do not, and many are non-profit. As mentioned above in item #1, allocating domain names is a largely a self-policing exercise, so that if a person wanted to deceive, it’s just a matter of finding the right .org domain name to exploit.

Try to figure out the motivation behind the site, is it up for purely marketing purposes, or does it offer something for everyone to leave with? While the answer to this question is enlightening, be warned that some of the best information is found on fee-based subscription services (such as Consumer Reports or Lexis-Nexis).

7. Have you performed a "Who Is" check?

Whenever someone wants to register a new .com, .net., .org or one of several other open registered top-level domain names, the transaction is recorded by an agency called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Private companies contract with ICANN to sell domain names to client companies and individuals. A huge database of all the domain name owners is part of the public record of the internet and available for anyone to search freely. Use this search to help verify that a company is who it says it is.

In the US:
http://www.internic.net/whois.html

Internationally (when 2 letter country code used.):
http://www.allwhois.com/, or
http://www.whois.sc/

Your results may or may not be complete the first time you try. VeriSign/Network Solutions will give you a full record for its own clients, but will refer you to the assigning web site for domains that it did not register. Follow the links and perform a second search if necessary on the assigning site. Eventually you should get a record that looks something like this:

Registrant:
   Practical Psychology Press
   PO BOX 535
   PORTLAND, Oregon 97207-0535
   United States

   Registered through: Wild West Domains
   Domain Name: ADULTSTUDENT.COM
      Created on: 16-Aug-99
      Expires on: 16-Aug-17
      Last Updated on: 15-Apr-15

   Administrative Contact:
      Practical Psychology Press (email removed for this demo)
      PO BOX 535
      PORTLAND, Oregon 97207-0535
      United States
      5032893295      Fax -- 

   Technical Contact:
      Practical Psychology Press (email removed for this demo)
      PO Box 535
      Portland, Oregon 97207
      United States
      5032893295      Fax -- 

   Domain servers in listed order:
      NS2.TOTALCHOICEHOSTING.COM
      DNS3.TOTALCHOICEHOSTING.COM
      NS1.TOTALCHOICEHOSTING.COM
      DNS4.TOTALCHOICEHOSTING.COM



8. Does the content make sense?

Once you feel that you are on a valid site, the content STILL may be a fabrication or contain plenty of unusable information. University sites often have free pages for their students, so the beginning of the web site address may be something respected, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (web.mit.edu), but students and professors can have their own pages posted (http://web.mit.edu/dinoriki/www/), which may or may not contain useful information.

Verifying Content

So there you have it, eight simple steps to deciphering the validity of a web site. Once you feel like you’re at the site you expected, the decision of determining the validity of the content is up to you! A few simple steps, much like traditional research validation, are to:

  1. See if you can find at LEAST one independent web site, book, journal, report, etc., that has the same information, or reference to it. Sometimes relationships between media entities are not as clear as they should be. You need to be careful especially with large national magazines, broadcast/cable networks, and the like. Just a few companies own most of these media, and their bias really does come from the executives and their advertisers.

    It is best to corroborate information between primary sources, such as government documents, scientific journals and lab test results, first hand interviews, bibliographical searches, etc. Even these sources may be biased (see below).

  2. Check the date. Is the research current? Is the research "classic?" It is all relative. An older magazine, for instance, may have more detail about an event that occurred near its publication date than would a current magazine that briefly mentions the event. Find facts and data that best fit your assignment, whatever that may be.
  3. Beware of inherent bias. The same factual dietary information on a Beef Council web site may be presented quite differently than if it were on a Vegetarian Commission site. Be alert for what message the web site is trying to present and look for who they cite as references. Check message boards on a site to see what bias visitors to the site may have. Like-minded people tend to congregate together…. and protestors often are more verbal than the rest of the population.

  4. Note the author’s accreditation. Is the author a whacko in the outfield or a respected member of the research community? Look for a page or section "about the author" or some such that lists educational and professional training. Take time to verify references if you are unsure.
  5. Note the author’s intent. Is the author trying to sell something? Presenting a dissenting view of a popular subject? This is similar to the bias angle, but may be less obvious.
  6. For more information on evaluating web resources, visit:

    http://www.lesley.edu/library/guides/research/evaluating_web.html

    or,

    http://www.virtualsalt.com/evalu8it.htm

by Kristin Pintarich, Editor-in-Chief, The Adult Student’s Guide to Survival and Success

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