Using the World Wide Web

Part of The Alchemist's Lair Web Site
Maintained by Harry E. Pence, Professor of Chemistry, SUNY Oneonta, for the use of his students. Any opinions are totally coincidental and have no official endorsement, including the people who sign my pay checks. Comments and suggestions are welcome (

Last Revised January 28, 2003


Before we use the information from any site, we need to answer at least the following questions:

1. Why should we trust this information?

2. Who (what) is the original resource and what vested interest do they have in the information?

3. What hands has this information passed through and how might they have changed it?

4. Does this information appear to be objective or biased? How can you tell?

5. Is the information provided up to date and accurate?

6. Is the site well designed and well maintained?

To help you formulate an opinion on these issues, every site should provide the following minimum information. If it does not, you should question whether or not the information is trustworthy.

Now move to more difficult questions, that require you to form an opinion about the source and validity of the information on the site.

Notice that the term "bias" does not necessarily mean error. Most individuals and organizations wish to support a particular point of view, which they are convinced is correct. Information that supports this point of view is more likely to be selected than that which does not. For example, if you are looking for an objective evaluation of the policies of the Republican Party, don't expect to find it at site sponsored by the Democratic party. Thus, it is important that you compare the information on sites that have different biases in order to evaluate what is most likely to be true.

If you wish to obtain more extensive information about how to evaluate web sites, you should look at the bibliographies at Evaluating Web Sites for Educational Uses (Notice that a list of questions for evaluation is at the end of the bibliography).


There are three common problems when you attempt to contact a web site and are not connected. You may get a message that says that the server is busy or not available. This usually means exactly what it says; either the server is receiving so many hits that it cannot connect to you or else the server is down for some technical reason. In either case, the solution is, as the error message says, to try again later.

The more fatal problem is some variation of the error message:

-ERROR-(404): file specification syntax error

This may indicate several possibilities. First, the URL that you are using may be wrong. Check the URL carefully to make sure that you didn't make an error when you wrote it. It may be that you have encountered link rot, that is, the site has vanished or changed its address, and the page that you are using as a reference has not responded to this change. Of course, you should drop a note to the webmaster who used this URL so that others will not suffer the same frustration, and the webmaster may also be able to help you find the new address.

If the URL still exists, the best way to find it is to use a search engine, but if you really feel that you need this specific URL immediately, there is a quick and dirty strategy that you can follow that will sometimes produce results. Suppose that the URL that you are looking for is (Don't look for this one; it doesn't exist!)

the tilde (~) tells you that this site exists on the directory of an individual who has the address sweenytodd. Perhaps the name of this particular recipe has changed, so try cutting down the URL from right to left, that is, try

If that doesn't work keep cutting down on the URL until you get a hit, so the last gasp effort would be

If you do finally make a connection, look for a link that seems to match what you are interested in. For example, you might make it to sweenytodd's home page and discover that he has a link entitled "favorite dishes." This may mean that he has redone the recipe page and given it a new title. Go to the favorite dishes page and look for sausage. The strategy is to cut back on the specifications of the URL until you find something that works, then look for links that will move you towards the information that you need.

This doesn't always work, but it does work often enough to make it a useful strategy.

DNS Lookup Failed is he third major type of error message. The DNS (domain name server) is a program that turns a written Web site address (such as into the corresponding numerical address that is actually used by a computer. A DNS Lookup Failed message indicates that the browser could not contact the domain name server, or that the domain name server program did not have a listing for the site. This is truly fatal error, but it often results because the domain name is misspelled. If you get this error message, be sure that you have written the address correctly.

One last option is available for some "vanished web pages." When the Google search engine indexes a page, it will often keep a cache copy of the page. This is indicated with the word cache on the line after the listing for the page. Look at the following listing. In this case, the word Cached has been made more obvioius than would normally be the case, but this shows you where to look for it.

Renaissance-Central Movie Review: THE TALE OF SWEENEY TODD This site is sponsored by Chivalry Sports and the Renaissance Store, ... - 7k - Cached - Similar pages

Thus, it is sometimes possible to raise a page from the dead by doing a Google search that will produce the page as a hit, then clicking on the cache button. This is a desperate measure, but sometimes it is worth the effort.


Does it make any difference which search engine you use to find information on the WWW? If you don't think that it does, take a look at Choosing the Best Search Engine for Chemistry - II. The number of hits can differ by several orders of magnitude when you shift from one search engine to another. Notice that Pence et al uses specific scientific terms, so their results don't necessarily agree with studies that are based on more general search problems.

Bush Library at Hamlin University (St. Paul, MN ) supports Understanding and Comparing Web Search Tools, which gives links to a number of Search Engine Evaluations. These evaluations are not specifically based on science topics, however.


Although this site is labeled APA Format, it gives links to many pages that offer advice on both APA and MLA style citation methods for electronic sources.


There is currently much discussion about how to modify the laws that govern intellectual property in order to cover the new situations, mostly with electronic sources, that have become common since the law was last revised. If you are going to make extensive use of the Web, and especially if you plan to create your own Web page, you should follow one of the sites that will keep you current on developments in this rapidly changing field, such as Vassar College's comprehensive Intellectual Property Law site.

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