How to Do Research on the Internet: Untangling the Web
How to tell the good sources from the bad.
As an English major and someone now back in school pursuing my graduate degree even though I'm kind of old, I have learned a thing or two about doing research on the Internet. I'm not going to tell you how to do research on the Internet here - there's already lots of information on doing that - but I am going to show you how to tell if the research you are doing is any good. I'll explain how to tell if the information you're finding is accurate or at least has some respectability.
The first thing you need to look at is the domain name / URL itself. Different URL suffixes denote different kinds of sites. Most everyone knows this part, but different URLs provide varying levels of credibility, or at least as perceived by people who read (or allow) Internet research to inform some kind of research based presentation or document. What follows is a basic breakdown of how credible (or not) and why, the information found at sites with the major types of URL suffixes can be.
.COM or .NET
If you're just curious about something, a .COM or a .NET is good enough, even though you run the risk of reading something that is essentially nothing but total tripe. You may find something purely genius too. But all-in-all, it's entirely hit and miss. There are some good .COM sites out there, for sure, but the thing is, you can only trust the content more or less in direct proportion to how well you know whose website it is that you are on. You must mediate your level of belief (or you should at least) based on how established the website owners are and by what their agenda for having put the site up most likely is.
For example, if you wanted to learn about the quality of BrandX automobiles, you could go to the BrandX.com homepage and read lots of things about their cars. Likely you will find great information there about vehicle models, release dates, dealer locations, corporate policies and assorted other things. However, ask yourself how accurate quality evaluations on specific models will really be. I mean, is BrandX going to tell you if one of their products actually kind of sucks?
Let's say the BrandX Superduper II truck was ranked #1 by J.D. Powers or by Consumer Reports magazine. Well, you can figure this information will certainly be on the BrandX webpage. Obviously it would. But what if one of those review sources thought that the Toyota Megaduper Z was far better for a ton of reasons than the Superduper II? Maybe one of these car reviewers even put the Superduper II at the bottom of their well-publicized annual list of ten terrible cars or something to that effect. Do you think that low rating is going to show up on the BrandX website? I'm thinking not. So, while you can trust some of the stuff on a company's .COM website as credible, you have to take it with a grain of salt.
Now, consider if you went to CrazyFredLovesBrandX.COM - or even a user-based set up like Helium, Facebook or even HubPages where this article will be - and found an article saying, "The BrandX Superduper II is the greatest automobile since the Apollo 38 mission went up in 1492." Well, now we have some potential for trouble. If the purpose of doing research was that you had to write a report on cars, and let's assume you knew NOTHING about cars (or history) to begin, you might not spot the obvious problems with this information before you used it as a resource. If Crazy Fred can write with something that sounds like authority, you might include his information as fact in your paper or report. That would be bad for your credibility.
So, while .COM and .NET and other commercially common sites are not necessarily bad at all, and some are quite good - as in such obvious cases as this article you are reading now - you still have to be wary of what you take from them. Pay attention to who and what you read.
.ORG sites are often quite credible, and generally they are viewed as more so than .COMs and .NETs purely on principle. However, despite this slightly higher respectability, taking information from a .ORG site isn't really a whole lot different than going to a company's .COM webpage. Websites using the .ORG suffix are organizations that are (or pretend to be) non-profits. But despite the ostensible charity or nobility of such groups, they will still have an agenda, just like corporations do, and therefore they have a message they are trying to get out.
If your paper or project needs to understand that particular message, then you won't find a better source to learn about what that organization has to say, but if you are trying to analyze an issue, you might have to look around a little more.
Take a regularly hot issue like abortion as an example. If you go to any .ORG sites for groups that are opposed to abortion, you will find heated rhetoric supporting their opinions and understandings of that ongoing debate. However, what you likely won't find is a fair and balanced look at the issue as it is seen from the other side. The exact same will hold true if you go to websites sponsored by groups in favor of abortion (only in reverse); you will find spirited arguments as to why their position on the issue is correct and why those opposed to abortion have it wrong.
At best, a good .ORG will acknowledge the opposing positions and offer counter arguments to their opponent's points of view, but in the end, you, the person doing the research project that brought you to that page to begin, will still have to visit at least two sites if you hope to have a balanced body of research for the foundation of your paper's argument. If you just go to one site, you'll have a great one-sided argument that your professor or readers (assuming they are any good) will tell you is simply "preaching to the choir." If that is all your research project is for, to tell people stuff they already know or just what they want to hear, that's perfect and now you know what to do. But, if your purpose is to build broad-based credibility so that you can reach an open-minded or even hostile reading audience, then you need to do a bit more work.
.GOV and .EDU (and even .MIL I suppose, if reluctantly)
Ok, so this is where the most credible information is. But I say that with a giant caveat: Colleges and governments have agenda's too. However, the thing about colleges and government agencies is that the stuff they publish gets reviewed and reviewed and reviewed. If a college or government agency puts up something about the "Superduper II being the greatest vehicle in the world" they have about two seconds to back it up with verifiable evidence before other agencies, professors, schools, experts and authorities will find that article or report and rip it apart like a pack of hyenas on a wounded antelope. There is, generally speaking, just too much "peer review" going on at .EDU and .GOV sites for the information to get too absurdly out of hand. Doesn't mean it never happens, but the frequency is much rarer than on the other types of sites.
Knowledge is Power
There you have it: a brief examination of the assorted URL prefix types and how they are viewed for credibility, at least as I have come to understand them through the course of nearly nine years of doing academic and even some corporate research work. Pay attention to what you believe and from whom your information comes and the things you present to your professors and peers will bring you greater credibility.