Understanding how to read a URL is an important step in determining the validity of a website. URLs are Uniform Resource Locators. They are the address of the site on the internet – how to locate the resources. The Uniform part of the name means that they are written in the same format and the parts all mean specific, identifiable things. The most important part you will look for is the extension. This is the last part, the .com, .edu, or .org. There are many others, but understanding how they are created is more important than memorizing a list of them.
There are some regulations that control the extensions, but there are also a lot of generally accepted rules, that people may or may not follow as their inclinations lead them.
An organization called the ICANN regulates certain extensions, in particular .gov and .edu. If a website has one of these extensions, you can be certain it has met some criterion to qualify. .gov extensions are available at every level of government, from city to federal and include some things you may not think of right away, such as tribal. Material posted on these sites is official and can often be considered a primary source.
This is not used for foreign governments. Each country has a two letter country code and sites that originate in countries other than the US will end in those. Look for a two letter extension such a .ca, .ae, or .ly. Ending in a two letter country code does not mean anything in terms of the usefulness or accuracy of a website. It only means a site originated in that country. Each page has to be evaluated on its own merits.
The .edu extension is for qualified educational organizations. This ranges from K-12 schools to full universities. While much material posted on these sites is accurate, remember that student work is often posted with a .edu extension. Also keep in mind that you should never work below your scholarly level. This is college. K-12 schools, no matter how accurate, are not written to a level of complexity that serves your scholarship.
There are a few other common types of extensions but they are not controlled. They simply have designations that can be generally followed. .com is meant for commercial activities. You should be able to buy and sell merchandise on a site like this. .org is meant for organizations. These can range from a local Girl Scout troop to the United Nations. It also includes museums and charitable organizations.
Since these are not controlled, they can be purchased by anyone and used for any reason. When you are creating a website and purchase a URL, the sale sites will usually offer every other possible extension so that you can control all the domain names similar to yours.
What that means in reality is that you cannot rely on an extension to tell you what is on the site, but it does give you an idea of what should be there. Most .com and .biz sites are going to want to sell you something. Even personal pages often offer subscriptions. From a student’s perspective there is almost nothing useful on these types of sites, unless you are studying them as business models.
.org pages fall in a weird middle ground. They are meant to be used by legitimate organizations and so should be good but they can be commercially purchased so any jerk with an agenda can use one for his own goals. The issuance of these extensions is not controlled and so the general guideline will be ignored by the ignorant and predators alike. In general, these pages are where you will find museums and other really great organizations that are not actual schools. Always check to see what kind of organization it is that is using the .org.
Often sites look legitimate but are not. A notorious example of this is the Institute for Historical Review. It produces a very legitimate looking web page and writes articles with blurbs that start out sounding like they are historical pieces about Nazi Germany. As you read an article you may feel a little uncomfortable but if you don’t have a lot of experience you may not realize why. There are certainly a lot of factual sounding statements. Take a minute to look at the books they sell and it becomes apparent it is a neo-Nazi, holocaust denial page.
There are ways you can tell if a site is legitimate without even looking at the content.
1. You can use a link checker to determine if there are broken links on the site. A poorly maintained site will have many broken links.
2. You can check the ICANN record to find out about the site. This one deserves a word of caution. Sites that are created THROUGH another site, such as Wordpress, do not show up with any data. It does not mean there is no record of the site, only that you are not searching on the right information.
3. Visit a link analysis site. This will tell you how many other sites have used the site you are looking at for reference. This section right here has three links. Ranger College Library will show up in the link analysis of those sites. By examining the types of site that link back to your site you can determine how others have used it. Another option for link analysis is simply to type LINK:URL into your search engine, where URL is the URL of the site you want information on.
This Skeptoid article explains the same concepts covered in this guide.