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Evaluating Online Sources: A Toolkit

Evaluating Online Sources: Simple Strategies for Complex Thinking

Image of bundle of intertwined telephone wiresThe Internet allows people to create and to share information in ways that once seemed possible only in science fiction. At the same time that we can benefit from the open nature of the Internet, it's sometimes hard to decide what online information to trust and to use.

We'll offer some simple, evidence-based strategies for evaluating the credibility of online sources, as well as reading critically. More specifically, we’ll teach you about “lateral reading,” the practice of doing a quick initial evaluation of a website by spending little time on the website and more time reading what others say about the source or related issue. Lateral reading is used commonly by fact checkers.

These strategies will help you look beyond less important surface features of a web source (for example, how professional it looks or if it's a .org), and think more carefully about who is behind the source, what their purpose is, and how trustworthy and credible they are. 

On this page we’ll introduce you to several lateral reading strategies and concepts. On the guide’s other pages (see the navigation menu) we’ll share additional source evaluation strategies and learning resources.

Misinformation on COVID-19: There is a lot of misinformation circulating about COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus. University of Toronto Libraries offers helpful tips on spotting such information. Many of those strategies are similar to the broader strategies presented in this guide.  

This guide draws largely on research from the Stanford History Education Group and on teaching materials from Mike Caulfield's SIFT approach and his Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

Image credit: 200 pair telephone cable model of corpus callosum.” By brewbooks. Creative Commons license: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Click Restraint

Click restraint: a regular practice of fact checkers, through which one reviews and analyzes a list of search results before deciding on which links to click

One important part of lateral reading is click restraint. When you practice click restraint, you don’t immediately click on the first search results. Instead you scan a search results page, looking at things like the title, source description, and featured sections, before deciding what sources to examine. This helps you to get a fuller picture of the coverage available on that source, as well as to look for sources that don’t come from the original source. 

Fact checkers exercise click restraint: they recognize that some sources may not be the most reliable ones and look for trusted coverage. Doing this will help you avoid “rabbit holes” and misleading information. Considering the results page as a whole can also give you insight into the source. For example, if many of the sources appear to be highly partisan or emotionally charged, the original source may be about a polarizing issue, or the source itself may be polarizing. 

This short video from the Stanford History Education Group illustrates the importance of click restraint and why you shouldn’t assume that the first search results are necessarily the most reliable or relevant ones. 

Video: How to Find Better Information Online: Click Restraint

SIFT: Moves for Web Evaluation

SIFT is a helpful acronym for initially evaluating source credibility. SIFT (from Mike Caulfield) stands for:

  • STOP. Pause.
    Ask yourself if you recognize the information source and if you know anything about the website or the claim's reputation. If not, you can continue with the next parts of SIFT. If you start getting overwhelmed during the other moves, pause and remember your original purpose.
    Also take note if you have a strong reaction to the information you see (e.g., joy, pride, anger). If so, slow down before you share or use that information. We tend to react quickly and with less thought to things that evoke strong feelings. By pausing, you give your brain time to process your initial response and to analyze the information more critically. 
  • INVESTIGATE the source.
    Take a minute to identify where this information comes from and to consider the creator's expertise and agenda. If the creator appears untrustworthy, the source may not be worth your time. Look at what others have said about the source to help with your evaluation.
    (For example, a company that sells health food products is not the best source for information about health benefits/risks of consuming coconut oil. A research study funded by a pharmaceutical company is also suspect.)
  • FIND trusted coverage.
    Sometimes it's less important to know about the source itself and more important to assess its claims. Look for credible sources, and compare information across sources in order to determine whether there appears to be a consensus.
  • TRACE claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.
    Sometimes online information has been removed from its original context (for example, a news story is reported on in another online publication or an image is shared on Twitter). If needed, trace the information back to the original source in order to recontextualize it.

Tip for finding out what are others saying about the original source and about its claim:

Tip for finding out what are others saying about the original source and about its claim:
To get search results that are from other sources (rather than from the website you are evaluating), try searching Google for [WEBSITE URL] site: -[WEBSITE URL]. For example:

  • site:
  • site:

Modified from Mike Caulfield's SIFT (Four Moves), which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Later, when you determine that a source is worth your time, you can analyze the source's content more carefully.

Why Lateral Reading?

Online Verification Skills - Video 1 (Newswise)

Lateral Reading in Action

Online Verification Skills - Video 2: Investigate the Source (Newswise)

Quick Tips

Find what others say about a website. In Google search for "[WEBSITE URL] -site:[WEBSITE URL].



The results will be from other websites. While some may have some relationship to the original domain, other sites can give insight into what others say about that site. 

Learn more about "web searching a domain" from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

Check a Twitter account. Some Twitter accounts claim to be something they are not. To check the validity of a Twitter account:

  • Right-click on the Twitter handle (Twitter name) and select "Search Google for 'ACCOUNT NAME.'
  • On the Google results page select the "News" filter (top of the page). What do the results tell you about the Twitter account?

Learn more from this post by Mike Caulfield.

Check the origins of an image. If you find an image on a web page or a social media site like Twitter and are unsure of its authenticity, you can check its orgins with a reverse image search. In the Chrome browser right-click on the image and select Search Google for image. The image search results will show you other places where the image has appeared. Examine these results to see if there are any discussions about the trustworthiness or origins of the image.

Learn more from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.