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Evaluating Quality

© 2001 by Walt Howe
(last revised 6 February 2010)

Evaluating Quality
Whether you are searching for information on the nets or putting up your own information for others to access, it is important to consider the quality of the information and its presentation. The Internet is criticized with good reason for the sheer volume of unevaluated information that it possesses. To use information with any confidence, you must be able to critically evaluate how good that information is. A large portion of the information made available on the nets lacks good indications of its quality. It is not enough for information to be of high quality. For others to make use of the information, they must be able to judge the quality for themselves. Information that is well presented makes the quality determination easy for the searcher. This article, and its companion articles on creating quality in your own web pages published in the Publishing on the Web Forum serves the dual purpose of
  1. helping searchers develop evaluation skills in judging information.
  2. helping web content developers increase the credibility of their materials for those looking for quality on the nets.

There are several questions you should ask yourself to judge the quality of information that you find? If you can't answer these questions, the quality of the information is doubtful. We will consider each of these in turn:

And one more question that can help you find quality information:

Is the information accurate?
If the information is factual, not opinion, the basic question is whether the facts are accurate. Unless the information appears in a refereed journal subject to peer review, you are depending on the authority and expertise of the author and the sources the information is drawn from. Are the sources of the information clearly given? If the information is drawn from the writer's own experience, was it based on simple observation or on carefully designed research? Is the author drawing conclusions and generalizations based on his or her experience, and are they appropriate? Is the information consistent internally and externally with other sources. Is the information well written, well organized, and logically presented? Is it free from spelling and grammatical errors, which may indicate some care in its presentation.

Is the author an authority on the subject?
Do you know who the author of the information is? An unsigned piece of information does not have the authority of a signed piece. If it is unsigned, is it posted in a usually authoritative place? For example, you would be more likely to credit a factual piece in the New York Times, a journal that can be expected to check its sources, than you would on an advertising page. If the author is known, what do you know about the author? Is the author an expert either in the subject matter or alternatively in observation and evaluation? What can you tell about the author? A student does not have the authority of a professor. An unknown writer does not have the authority of a well known, frequently published writer.

Note that one place to look for the author is in meta tags. Meta tags are a form of metadata (information about information) that may be included within the unseen HEAD structure of an HTML page. They are more often missing than present, but if they are included, they are a sign that the author took some care to make the information easier to find by search engines. If you View Source with your browser, you can examine the HEAD section and look for meta tags. The most common tags give descriptions and keywords, but they may also include the author, copyright status, copyright information, dates of publication, and much more. Well written meta tags add credibility to the information.

Does the author bring any biases in posting the information?
Can you judge the author's purpose in posting the information? If the author or the location's purpose is to persuade you or sell to you, you must judge the information accordingly. An evaluation of features of competing software packages is questionable if it is posted on one of the competing software manufacturers' pages. It is more credible if it is posted by a truly independent laboratory. It may be questionable in a magazine or journal supported by advertisers of the products.

Think of the problem of finding unbiased information about a political candidate. It is a role traditionally given to journalists, but many news sources have a political bias, which may extend beyond the obvious editorials. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that sources with which you tend to agree are more apt to be accurate and unbiased.

Is the information current and timely?
Is the information dated or can you tell from the content when it was written? Is the information likely to change? Is it recent enough? If no dates are visible, check for meta tags, as described above.

How does this information compare with other sources on the same topic?
Don't stop with a single source unless you can answer the above questions to your satisfaction. Is there a better source available? Consider varying your approach to searching for relevant information.

Where can I find information that is already evaluated?
While the brute force approaches of using the big search engines like Google and Fast can dig out a lot of information available on a topic, it can be an overwhelming task to evaluate all the information that is produced or even to make your way through it all. Refining your search can narrow the choices, and you hope that the algorithms that the search engines use to rank items will approximate your needs and put the best results near the top of the lists. This is not always the case, and no matter how good the search engines are, they never index more than a minority of the pages on the nets.

To make searching for quality more productive, it can be useful to make use of expert work done by others. Instead of searching for the basic information, search for an expert in the subject who has posted his or her own information or posted links to evaluated information. The novice often makes the mistake of trying to post as many links as possible on a topic. The expert links to quality, not quantity.

How do you find experts? There are several approaches.

  • One is to pick out a few best hits from a search engine and follow the links in those documents to look for experts on the sources.

  • Another is to use the subject matter indexes such as Yahoo, Open Directory Project , and Wikipedia where, presumably some selectivity has been used in listings. Be cautious, though. Their definition of quality will not always agree with your needs.

  • Another is to restrict your search to scholarly, refereed journals. This will generally require searching for a fee in such services as

With any of these, check the dates carefully. Resources collected by an expert may be of marginal value if they haven't been updated for two years.

The real message of this article is not to give a set of rules for evaluation. Search engines work imperfectly on a set of rules. What we really need is to ask everyone to develop critical thinking when confronted by decisions like these. What are the most critical factors to look at when you do a search? And if you are publishing your own web pages, what do you need to consider to ensure that others will realize the quality in your contributions.

For a more thorough treatment of quality evaluation by a respected librarian and author, see Hope Tillman's Evaluating Quality on the Net.

If you want quality in your own web pages, read the companion articles in the Publishing on the Web Forum. They will help you prepare quality, searchable information that others will find and link to. See