The World Wide Web is a vast electronic network that permits any person, group, or organization with access to a computer, a Web editor, and a server to publish. The quality of information found on the Web can therefore vary enormously, from quite scholarly, insightful, thoughtful, and analytical to wildly inaccurate and subjective. If you are to do a solid job of evaluating information found on the Web, it is necessary that you (1) have good critical thinking skills, and (2) develop broad prior knowledge of a topic. It is therefore preferable to begin your research with books and journal articles that provide a good conceptual framework and identify key issues for you before you plunge into the Web.
Google is now the preeminent search engine in the world. Google indexing is done by machine using an algorithm that the managers of Google have designed. As a general principle, Google ranks results according to the total number of links found on the Web to the sites that correspond to the subject terms you have put in. The assumption is that the best sites are the ones most heavily linked to.
You can almost always do more sophisticated searching in Google if you will click on Advanced Search. If you want the sites retrieved to contain all the words you have put in, use the box "with all the words." If you want an exact sequence of words, e.g., racial profiling, use the box "with the exact words." You can also limit according to a number of other criteria to maximize retrieval of relevant materials.
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia created by anonymous contributors. It operates under the assumption that the collective expertise and watchful eye of people interested in the articles it contains will ultimately guarantee high quality and balanced treatment of the topics it addresses. While there is a great deal of very solid material in Wikipedia, there is also much material of questionable quality.
College professors have never wanted students to cite encyclopedias in doing research papers. Encyclopedias are considered summary or synthetic literature rather than the product of original research as found in scholarly books and journal articles. Though you should not cite articles in Wikipedia, these articles can be useful in gathering preliminary ideas, interpretations, and data. Two things to look for are these. First, does the Wikipedia article show up on the first screen in a Google search? This usually indicates that many people knowledgeable in the area have found it valuable and linked to it from their own Web sites. Second, does the Wikipedia article contain citations? Again, this is usually a sign of higher quality, and the citations themselves can be extremely valuable to pursue.
Wikipedia is now doing a much better job of alerting the reader to obvious problems with an article. It may indicate (1) that the article is missing citations or needs footnotes or (2) that the article may need to be rewritten for reasons that are stated. Wikipedia will also close down editing access to articles that are heavily contested as a clear warning to be leary of the content.