Home > Uncategorized > Reliability is not a popularity contest

Reliability is not a popularity contest

I would like to take some time to respond to flora435’s earlier post (which can be found here). Alexa certainly is a popular website in itself, and it can be fun and even useful to check how much traffic a site is generating. But a prudent student or scholar should take care to confirm the reliability of websites based on sources other than the number of hits a site receives. While some very trusted and respected websites are on Alexa, such as CNN and the BBC, the vast majority of sites in the first 50 sites or so of their “Top Sites” list is dominated by Google and its country-specific variants, as well as a few popular social networking and corporate websites. The rest of the list slowly degenerates into a collection of pornographic and file sharing sites. Popularity is only one very superficial indicator of trustworthiness, and when it comes to research (and legal scholarship, in particular), going to great lengths to determine the factual correctness of a sentence or source is expected. Law school journals have swarms of associates running around trying to figure out how to use somewhat “old-timey” (prehistoric?) technology, such as microfilm and *gasp* the library card catalog system, all in the name of promoting accuracy. Whether the general population cares at all about the diligent efforts these budding attorneys have in authenticating articles is another post for another time, but suffice it to say that from a very early point in a student’s career, the value placed on trustworthiness and reliability means that they will often be looking in some of the least popular places in the library, and perhaps, the Internet.

Google, one of the heavy hitters on Alexa in terms of user traffic, is alleged to rank certain websites more favorably if they pay for advertising space on the search engine. In fact, there is continuing controversy over Google when it comes to how it handles its competitors (for the most recent news as of today, see here). So one of the most popular websites in the world that people use to find information may not be providing the most relevant information to its customers. Thankfully, when it comes to legal scholarship, the emphasis on corroboration makes it somewhat easy to authenticate, and most attorneys and law students are aware of where to go and what to do, whether it’s KeyCiting (or if you prefer, Shepardizing) a source or pulling up the latest issue of the Federal Register to double-check a bill, there are many online sources at the legal community’s disposal. The pertinent question, however, is what to do for the general public? Should there be a push toward making reliable sites more popular? Or making popular sites more reliable? Would the public even care? Wikipedia, as mentioned in the past, has done a commendable job on providing citations to authority where possible, though some Wikipedia articles may fall victim to misattributions or misinformation.

There may be a sort of availability bias involved, where the most popular sites are presumed to be the most reliable (or else why would millions of unique visitors click on that web page every day?). But even within the legal community, the twin pillars of legal research, Westlaw and LexisNexis, are sadly prone to error, from simple typos to more glaring and disastrous mistakes. While some of these errors are the fault of the court issuing the opinion, others cannot be so easily brushed aside. While this doesn’t have to lead to a cynical view of the government, all this means is that, in my humble opinion, Internet users should not take everything they read at face value, even if it is popular and trendy.

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