Rating the Web: What Do You Think?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 01, 2006

I’ve been reflecting a good deal lately on our website rating system. As you know, CatholicCulture.org rates sites based on fidelity to the mind of the Church, depth of resources, and usability. We began doing website reviews as a means of acquainting users with Catholic resources outside of our own document library. The ratings were designed to make it easier for users to decide whether to make use of these sites.

Sometime along the way we also developed lists of Strengths and Weaknesses in an effort to make the pros and cons of each site more easily recognizable. This seemed better than burying critical information in longer paragraphs of descriptive prose. In fact, we restructured all of our reviews to make use of this format. It now seems to me that the Strengths and Weaknesses convey more useful information than the ratings and, with some revision, can serve both purposes.

My guess is that people aren’t too concerned about the Usability rating. The Resources rating is more useful. But what stands out, of course, is the Fidelity rating. This is a very convenient tool for identifying which supposedly “Catholic” web sites really share our commitment to an authentically Catholic worldview. And if you’re in search of an answer to those who praise a bad site, well, you can always trot out CatholicCulture.org’s Fidelity rating. But brandishing this like a club will probably get you exactly nowhere in a debate, and I’ll tell you a secret: those on the other side use our Red ratings to find the sites they want to visit.

Questioning the Fidelity Rating

There are other problems as well. First and foremost, the Fidelity rating tends to cast CatholicCulture.org as the watchdog of the web, which is not really central to our purpose. We want to be a trusted source of Catholic information and ideas, whether through our own materials or those we recommend. We work very hard at that and, yes, we hope others will trust our judgment on things Catholic. But we don’t yearn to be seen as The Judge. Only the Church merits that title.

Second, the Fidelity rating is a flashpoint for controversy. In some senses this is good: it tends to force things out in the open and encourages people to declare where they stand. But the very name of the rating makes it a pretty hefty judgment, and some of the controversy swirls around our methods and our nomenclature, not our conclusions. The rating is attractive to many, but it rubs others the wrong way, even some who share our convictions.

Third, assessing fidelity with sufficient care to actually issue a rating is very time-consuming. It requires significantly less work to list the strengths and weaknesses of a site than it does to bring everything down to a single “grade”. One doesn’t need to assemble a dossier to note a tendency. I’m not sure a formal grade conveys enough additional information to be worth the additional effort.

A Better Way?

So, as I said, I’ve been wondering. What if we do three things better than we do now: (1) Highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each site, including a succinct assessment of its ideological tendencies; (2) Identify and recommend the sites which we find uniformly excellent; (3) Make it easier for users to find the sound Catholic information they need regardless of where it is on the web.

Would this be more useful than the current rating system? Please tell me what you think.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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