The Web is a hybrid communications channel that integrates many components of traditional media. Like print media, it facilitates the integration of visual content with text. Like film and television, the Web is capable of combining sound and video content. Moreover, other components have been added to this already eclectic media mix.
For example, hypertext links facilitate user interaction with the medium by allowing users to make choices concerning how and in what sequence they access Web-based resources. This merging of text, images, motion, sound, and interactive links constitutes a powerful means of communication. Not surprisingly, this potent hybrid medium can, at times, pose complex evaluation challenges. Two of these evaluation challenges relate to advertising, namely: (1) the blending of information and advertising, and (2) the blending of information, advertising, and entertainment.
Although both of these advertising, related also exist in conventional media, they can prove even more challenging in a Web-based media environment.
Some demanding evaluation challenges posed by the Web, however, are not found in traditional media. These unique Web-related challenges include
- The use of hypertext links
- The use of frames
- Search engines that retrieve pages out of context
- Software requirements that limit access to information
- The instability of Web pages
- The susceptibility of Web pages to alteration
Furthermore, over the past few years, yet another group of distinctive online evaluation challenges has emerged thanks to the ever-growing popularity of weblogs, wikis, and many other Internet-based applications and tools collectively known as social media.
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The Use of Hypertext Links
The ability to use hypertext to link a variety of pages is one of the Web’s most appealing features. However, the fact that one Web page contains material of high information quality does not guarantee that pages linked to the original page will be uniform in quality. As a result, each Web page, and often sections therein, must be evaluated independently for the quality of the information it contains.
The Use of Frames
Information presented on Web pages within frames can also present an evaluation challenge. A frame is a Web feature that allows the division of a user’s browser window into several regions, each of which contains a different HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) page. The boundaries between frames may be visible or invisible. Sometimes, each frame can be changed individually, and sometimes one frame in the browser window remains constant while the other frames can be changed by the user.
The contents of the various frames often originate from the same site. Nonetheless, it is possible for the different frames to originate from different sites without the user being aware of it. Consequently, a Web user needs to be alert to the fact that, because the contents of each frame may be originating from a different Web site, each frame needs to be evaluated independently.
Database-Driven Web Sites
When a Web site is created using traditional Web authoring techniques, the contents of the pages within the sites remain fixed or “static” until revisions are made to their underlying HTML coding. Likewise, the URLs for the pages remain unchanged until the pages are either moved to another location within the site or transferred to another site or server.
Today, however, static Web pages and URLs are becoming less common as content management systems are increasingly used to create and manage the content on many Web sites. Databases are integral components of content management systems and thud serve as the underlying foundation upon which “database-driven” sites are built. In this new generation of Web sites, Web pages often simply serve as templates for displaying the results of database queries rather than functioning as storage areas for information. Google™, Yahoo!™, and countless other Web sites are constructed
around this database-driven model.
Dynamic URLs represent another unique feature of database-driven Web sites. Each time a Web user types a query into a database-driven site, a new “dynamic URL” is generated. Dynamic URLs routinely include characters such as ?, &, $, +, =, %, .cgi,and .cgi-bin (WebMediaBrands 2009a, 2009b). For example, when the phrase “web evaluation” was searched on Yahoo!, the dynamic URL http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=%2B%22Web+evaluation%22&fr=yfp-t-151&toggle=1&cop=mss&ei=UTF-8 was generated for the search results page.
Really Simple Syndication (RSS )
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) represents yet another popular form of dynamic Web content. RSS represents “a family of web formats used to publish frequently updated digital content.” Although RSS feeds are typically text-based, they “may also include audio files (podcasts) or even video files (vodcasts)” (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service n.d.).
A feed reader, also known as a news reader or news aggregator, is an application needed to collect and view RSS content. There are many types of feed readers including “desktop, Web, mail-client, browser plug-in,” and more. The readers share a common function namely, to simultaneously “monitor any number of sites and sources while providing near real-time updates from one location” (Library of
Congress, undated) Once a Web user selects and installs a feed reader, the user can subscribe to whatever RSS feeds are of personal interest.
A standard icon is used to indicate where RSS feeds are available on a particular Web site; however, the subscription process for feeds varies according to the type of feed reader application used. A diverse assortment of government agencies, businesses, organizations, and even individuals now offer RSS feeds.
The ability of feed readers to seamlessly monitor updates from a multiplicity of Web sites affords Web users a substantial savings of time and energy. Feed readers are also of value to Web authors since they can be used to automatically aggregate and integrate content from other Web sources into authors’ own pages and sites (Library of Congress, undated; U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Software Requirements and Other Factors that Limit Access to Information
Beyond the need for a Web user to use a feed reader to view RSS feeds, two additional software-related factors may further limit the user’s ability to access all of the information offered on a Web page: (1) the types of browser used, and (2) other supplementary software that may be required to utilize the content.
Different browsers display information in varying ways. As a result, material created to be viewed by one graphical browser may not appear in the same manner when it is viewed by a different one. Moreover, older versions of a browser may display Web content or otherwise function differently from newer versions.
Beyond variations in browsers, other software or hardware may also be necessary to access the full contents of a page or site. A Web site may require a sound card and the appropriate software plug-ins to access multimedia content on the site.
Moreover, many forms and other publications on Web sites are exclusively available in Portable Document Format (PDF). Access to these materials requires downloading Adobe Acrobat reader or other software capable of viewing PDF files. Therefore, it is important to realize that these along with other factors may limit access to Webbased resources.
Pages Retrieved Out of Context by Search Engines
Another Web-specific issue involves the retrieval of orphan Web pages by search engines. Most Web sites are designed with the expectation that a user will initially view a page containing background information such as that provided on a home page. Sometimes, however, users will enter the site at another page instead of the home page, as when they retrieve a page by using a search engine.
In these instances, there may be no way to determine who is responsible for the page (and other important details) unless this information is provided either on the page itself or on a page linked to it.
The Susceptibility of Web Pages to Alteration
Web pages are also susceptible to alteration, both accidental and deliberate. Accidental alteration can occur when converting information into a Web-friendly format. For example, text and images that appear correctly in a word-processing document or spreadsheet may be distorted when converted into another format.
Also, problems associated with the transmission of data across the Web and other sundry factors can cause odd characters to appear on the page or prevent the entire page from loading.
Deliberate alteration, on the other hand, can result when hackers break into a site and purposely change the information. Given the susceptibility of Web information to alteration, it is always important to compare facts found in a Web-based source with those found in other Web and non-Web sources to verify their accuracy.
The Redirection of URLs to Diff erent Web Sites and Other Malicious Activities
In addition to deliberate Web page alteration, Web users must also be alert to another deceptive practice, namely, the redirection of URLs to unwanted or counterfeit pages and sites. Redirection can take several forms. It can be caused by a browser hijacker, a type of spyware that infects a Web user’s browser and then changes the user’s designated browser home page, delivers pop-up ads on the screen, or automatically redirects the browser to other Web pages and sites (Harvey et al. 2007; U.S. Federal Trade Commission et al. n.d.).
Alternately, a Web user may click on a seemingly legitimate hypertext link provided in an e-mail message or on a Web page that, in turn sends the user to a counterfeit page or site. Unfortunately for Web users, fake sites are becoming ever more sophisticated and often look virtually identical to their legitimate counterparts.
Once at a counterfeit site, unsuspecting visitors are often asked to provide personal or financial information to “verify” their account or registration, fill out an “order form,” or perform other tasks. In addition, these faux sites may serve as a means for transmitting viruses and other malware to visitors’ computers. Moreover, it is possible for redirection to take place even when a Web user types in a legitimate URL address rather than clicking on a hypertext link.
The Instability of Web Pages
The Web is inherently a less-stable medium than print. Pages and sites appear and disappear; URL addresses change. Given the dynamic nature of the Web, the contents of a particular page or the entire site itself may no longer be available when a user attempts to revisit it.
Unfortunately, there is relatively little Web users can do about this situation except to be aware of it and, when using the Web for research, to keep track of the URL addresses of the pages visited and make electronic or print copies of important pages.
Web content creators can also take steps to help minimize the difficulties related to the volatility of the Web.
As outlined in this article, the unique features of the World Wide Web have both positive and negative implications for Web evaluation. Acquiring a basic understanding of these features and recognizing how they can be used for malicious purposes will help Web users minimize the potential pitfalls associated with them.
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