The Positive Side

Winter 2012 

Sizing Up Web Sources

6 tips for assessing the credibility of online health info

By Lauren Plews

On the Web we have access to more health information than we could ever use. So how do we know we have the best information and that we can trust it? What do we look for when deciding what to trust? In a word: credibility. For something to be credible, the source needs to be both reliable and informative. Below is a list of six questions to keep in mind when visiting a health-related website for the first time.

Website checklist: 6 key questions

1. Is the site clear about its purpose or goal?
Websites are created for all kinds of reasons. Some are meant to inform, while others state an opinion. The purpose of many sites is to promote or sell a product or service. It is important that a site tell you exactly what it is trying to do and why.

2. Is the site what it claims to be? Does it do what it claims to do?
If the website says it has everything on a topic—say, HIV treatment—check to see if it has enough information to support the claim. If the site does not mention, for example, the latest anti-HIV drugs, it is not living up to its claim.

3. Is it easy to find out who is resposible for the site and how to ­contact them?
Ask yourself questions such as: What is the background or ­credentials of the website’s creators? Can you find information about the organization, such as its history, staff, board and location? If you can’t find any way to contact the site’s creators, this is a red flag.

4. Is it clear when the information was created or updated?
Health information—especially HIV information—is constantly changing, so the website should be up-to-date, as should the links to resources and other sites. A website that hasn’t been updated in a long time may not be the best source of information (although there may be ­exceptions).

5. Is the information presented in a way that informs you? Or does it try to persuade you?
The website should present information in a balanced way. If you feel more like the site is trying to convince you of something, think twice before taking it as fact.

6. Are sources given when facts are presented?
Facts should be separated from opinion, and the sources of facts should be provided. Some Web content may not be held to the same standards as newspapers or science journals. Fortunately, there are many websites that do follow high standards.

Ask yourself these six questions when you come across a new website. If it doesn’t meet your standards, keep surfing. If you find something great, bookmark it.

Don’t judge a site by its design

A great deal of research has been done to understand how users evaluate websites. A site that looks more professional or well designed will be seen as more credible. The risk in this is that the information is not being evaluated, so it is important to look carefully at the ­content.