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Evaluating Health Information on the Web: Evaluating Websites

This guide discusses evaluation criteria to be used in evaluating health information on websites and social media sites.

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What's the purpose of the website?

Most people looking for health information on the web begin at a search engine, like Google. Search results can come from many types of websites with many different purposes, including:

  • Advocacy
  • Marketing
  • Informational
  • News
  • Entertainment

It can be difficult to discern the purpose of a site and the reliability of its information at first glance.

Some evaluation criteria

Answering some basic questions about a website can often clarify whether the information posted is reliable and unbiased. The questions include:

  • Sponsorship-- What is the source of information? Look for the sponsor’s identity from the website address. For example:
    • .gov identifies a government agency
    • .edu identifies an educational institution, but the page may have been created by an individual, rather than by the institution itself.
    • .org stands for organizational publication, such as scientific or research societies, advocacy groups, etc. Fake .org sites exist.
    • .com identifies commercial websites (e.g. business, pharmaceutical companies, sometimes hospitals)
    • .net stands for a network vendor. It is difficult to know the quality of these sites.

    It should be easy to learn who is responsible for publishing a website. If it isn’t obvious who runs the Web site, look for a link on the homepage to an “About This Site” or "About Us" page. Also consider how the site supports itself. Is it funded by the organization that sponsors it? Does it sell advertising? Is it sponsored by a company that sells dietary supplements, drugs, or other products or services? The source of funding can affect what content is presented, how it is presented, and what the site owners want to accomplish.

  • Disclaimer -- Disclaimers are statements that let the reader know what responsibility the website sponsors will take for the content on their site. Look for a disclaimer that the information on the site does not take the place of seeing a physician.
  • Currency-- Outdated medical information can be misleading or even dangerous. Responsible websites regularly review and update their content, especially informational content such as fact sheets and lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs). Other types of site content, however, such as news reports or summaries of scientific meetings, may never be updated; their purpose is to describe an event, rather than to provide the most up-to-date information on a topic.

    To find out whether information on a Web page is old or new, look for a date on the page (it’s often near the bottom).

  • Verifiability-- Outdated medical information can be misleading or even dangerous. Responsible websites regularly review and update their content, especially informational content such as fact sheets and lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs). Other types of site content, however, such as news reports or summaries of scientific meetings, may never be updated; their purpose is to describe an event, rather than to provide the most up-to-date information on a topic.

    To find out whether information on a Web page is old or new, look for a date on the page (it’s often near the bottom).

  • Audience -- The website should clearly state whether the information is intended for health information consumers or  healthcare professionals. If it is meant for consumers, is it free of professional jargon and easy to read?