You probably know that plagiarism is a cardinal sin of writing.
But how confident are you that you know exactly how to cite a website? Do you know all the ins and outs of every style guide?
Most writers have a general sense of what to do, but the details get fuzzy.
Read on for a refresher course on everything you need to properly reference your online sources.
What Does it Mean to Cite a Website?
To cite a website is to point your reader to the online source you’re using in your own writing.
Several different style guides have laid out the rules for exactly how you should do this.
You’ll need to find the style guide that best fits your context; sometimes you’ll have a style guide (such as APA or Chicago) directly recommended to you, but you may need to choose for yourself without this guidance.
In any style, proper citation consists of two major parts: the in-text citation that clearly but concisely indicates your source, and the bibliography or works cited list, where your reader can find all the details for each source you referenced.
When Do You Need to Cite a Website?
In short, you need to cite a website whenever it informs your argument.
If an idea or fact is not yours and it’s not apparent enough to be considered “common knowledge,” you probably need to cite it.
How to Cite a Website
Bear in mind that there are several ways to cite a website, depending on your context.
You can find advice related to 3 of the most common style guides (APA, MLA, and Chicago) here as well as a note on academic writing.
How Do You Cite a Website in APA Format?
Taking an example from the APA, a typical work cited entry might look like this:
Bologna, C. (2019, October 31). Why some people with anxiety love watching horror movies.
In general, you only need the organization or author’s name, the date published, the title of the webpage, the name of the website, and the URL.
With that information, you should assemble your reference entry to match the above example, noting the italics, tabbed indent, and periods.
If there’s a date of update, replace the publication date with it.
You should provide the date you accessed the information if you know it’s expected to change over time (for example, if the page lists monthly rankings), and use “n.d.” to indicate when there is “no [publication] date” available.
The APA provides the following retrieval date example:
U.S. Census Bureau. (n.d.). U.S. and world population clock. U.S. Department of Commerce.
Retrieved January 9, 2020, from https://www.census.gov/popclock/
The matching in-text citation in APA format can either be parenthetical or narrative.
This means that your writing might include a citation that looks like this: [your writing] (Bologna 2019), or perhaps like this: Bologna (2019) writes that [your writing].
The first example (Bologna 2019) is a parenthetical in-text notation, while the latter is a narrative in-text citation.
Parenthetical notation is relatively easy to remember, but be careful to always include the year immediately after the author’s last name in narrative in-text citations, too.
Other style guides allow you to move the year to the end of the sentence if it feels more natural, but APA does not.
How Do You Cite an Entire Website in APA?
The APA advises against citing an entire website, generally speaking.
You should always provide the specific webpage you read, if at all possible.
However, a casual reference to an online tool might make sense.
In that case, you could refer to Google Trends with a simple URL, like this:
[Your writing] using Google Trends (https://trends.google.com/trends/?geo=US).
Better yet, use inline linking if your writing is online-only: [your writing] using Google Trends.
How Do You Cite a Website in APA With No Author or Date?
The APA conveniently has a table to clarify what to do if you’re missing important citation info.
As you’ll find at the above link, a website without an author or date should be listed in a works cited list and referred to in-text by its title first, with “n.d.” replacing the publication date.
How Do You Cite Websites in MLA?
The Modern Language Association (MLA) is not substantially different from the APA in terms of style.
However, it requires attention to the medium of the website and how you found it if you used an online database.
For example, the MLA has the following example for a typical online article:
Deresiewicz, William. “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.”
The Atlantic, 28 Dec. 2014, theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/01/the-death-of-the-artist-and-the-birth-of-thecreative-entrepreneur/383497/.
An online journal article adds the following complications, however:
Goldman, Anne. “Questions of Transport: Reading Primo Levi Reading Dante.”
The Georgia Review, vol. 64, no. 1, spring 2010, pp. 69-88. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41403188.
This system might start to make more sense if you break it down. MLA citations always begin like this:
[Surname, First name]. “Title of the webpage.”
After the author and title, you include all the other known elements with increasing specificity.
So the next one is the publisher/journal name (in italics), followed by everything else known, down to the narrowest detail of the URL where your reader can access the source.
Attention to detail will go a long way with MLA citations.
When in doubt, reference examples and copy them as closely as possible.
Technically, misplaced commas or periods make an otherwise correct entry incorrect!
Thankfully, MLA has less complicated rules regarding the in-text citation component.
The only differences from APA are that you include the page number(s) rather than publication dates with the author’s last name, and there are no restrictions to where you place your citation in a sentence.
So this might look like this (in the absence of page numbers):
[Your writing] (Deresiewicz).
Or, with page numbers:
[Your writing] (Goldman 70).
You can also incorporate the author’s name in quasi-narrative style as APA describes, but page numbers don’t have to follow the name:
Goldman writes that [your writing] (70).
Having the page number immediately after the writer’s name in the above example might appear stylistically clunky.
How Do You Cite a Website in MLA With No Author?
The MLA suggests you identify your source by its title if you don’t know the author.
This rule applies to both your works-cited entry and your in-text citation. Don’t forget to enclose the site name in quotation marks.
How to Cite a Website in Chicago Style
The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) gives two style options: “author-date” and “notes and bibliography.”
Which one is appropriate depends on your field.
The sciences prefer the author-date style, whereas humanities fields prefer notes and bibliography.
The CMOS is a little more relaxed than other style guides in its formatting rules in either style.
The vital difference between them is that you use parenthetical in-text citations in the author-date technique and instead use superscript numbers to show notes.
See the following examples to cite a website in Chicago author-date style:
Bouman, Katie. 2016. “How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole.” Filmed November 2016 at
TEDxBeaconStreet, Brookline, MA. Video, 12:51. https://www.ted.com/talks/katie_bouman_what_does_a_black_hole_look_like.
Google. 2022. “Terms of Service.” Privacy & Terms. Last modified January 5, 2022.
Harvard University. n.d. “About Harvard.” Accessed November 1, 2022.
Corresponding in-text citations:
(Harvard University, n.d.)
You may notice that Chicago is less fond of italics, more fond of periods as separators, and more specific about what your listed date indicates (publication, access, film date, etc).
You can instead use Chicago notes and bibliography style, if applicable:
Bouman, Katie. “How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole.” Filmed November 2016 at
TEDxBeaconStreet, Brookline, MA. Video, 12:51.
Google. “Terms of Service.” Privacy & Terms. Last modified January 5, 2022.
Harvard University. “About Harvard.” Accessed November 1, 2022.
The in-text notes could look like this:
1. “Terms of Service,” Privacy & Terms, Google, last modified January 5, 2022, https://policies.google.com/terms.
2. “About Harvard,” Harvard University, accessed November 1, 2022, https://www.harvard.edu/about/.
3. Katie Bouman, “How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole,” filmed November 2016 at TEDxBeaconStreet, Brookline, MA, video, 12:51, https://www.ted.com/talks/katie_bouman_what_does_a_black_hole_look_like.
Or, in shortened form:
1. Google, “Terms of Service.”
2. “About Harvard.”
3. Bouman, “Black Hole.”
How to Cite a Website in an Essay
If you’re writing an essay, be sure to follow the style guide your teacher or instructor requires.
What’s properly cited in Chicago is not so appropriate in MLA, and vice versa.
Remember to double-check for plagiarism, as discussed earlier, and check proper grammar, too.
These details might seem nitpicky, but it’s far better to err on the side of caution and be very careful when citing your sources.
Lack of attribution (or improperly formatted attribution) is considered plagiarism!
Why Do You Need to Cite Websites?
You might be wondering why it’s so important to cite your sources.
Maybe some of this sounds familiar from when you were back in school, but what’s the big deal if there’s not a teacher or professor breathing down your neck?
1. Gives Proper Credit
Imagine if nobody ever got credit for what they wrote.
Writers in all disciplines would be seriously unmotivated to publish their work if anyone could copy it and pass it off as their own.
Years’ worth of research could potentially be stolen in seconds, depriving the original author of any potential financial or social networking benefits.
By citing the website from which you learned your information, you’re doing the right thing for the website’s author as well as the community of online writers.
Nobody wins when stolen content is the norm.
2. Tell the Reader Where You Got Your Information
It makes sense to let your reader know your sources because it helps you establish credibility and shows them where they could find more information related to your content.
Your reader will be more likely to trust what you claim if they can see evidence that you did your research and they can verify for themselves that your source is credible.
3. Avoids Plagiarism
“Plagiarism” is an intimidating word you’ve no doubt heard wherever you last attended school.
Creatives of all kinds fear accusations of plagiarism beyond academia, and for good reason.
Copying someone else’s work can have serious repercussions that include a tarnished reputation as well as legal and financial consequences.
Unfortunately, we can commit plagiarism without even realizing it.
No ideas are truly original and it’s far too easy to read something, forget the source, and then make the honest mistake of reusing that information without proper attribution.
Prolific singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is all too familiar with accusations of plagiarism.
Recently, he’s been accused of borrowing unfairly from Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” in his hit song “Thinking Out Loud,” demonstrating that even the most successful creative people need to tread carefully on matters of intellectual property.
Sheeran responded to the allegations with the explanation that “Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify.
That’s 22 million songs a year, and there’s only 12 notes that are available.”
Writing follows a similar set of restrictions, making it tempting to believe plagiarism is inevitable.
The good news is that many plagiarism checkers are available to help you make sure you haven’t accidentally forgotten to cite a source. It’s worth the time to double-check to avoid potential mistakes.
4. Avoids Copyright Infringement
In a related vein, citing a website ensures you haven’t violated copyright.
You can think of copyright infringement as a specific type of plagiarism.
The two terms mean nearly the same thing, but there are other forms of plagiarism like auto-plagiarism (reusing your own work without acknowledging it) or citing your source incorrectly.
It may also be helpful to know that copyright and trademark are not the same.
For instance, you might think Coca-Cola copyrighted its company name.
This is technically untrue because a name can only be trademarked, whereas copyright covers more substantial creative works.
At any rate, you’ll want to avoid all types of plagiarism by carefully and properly citing any websites you reference in your writing.
Authors do not have to file for copyright on their intellectual property to protect it.
Rather, the US Copyright Office declares that “Once you create an original work and fix it…you are the author and the owner.”
This means that copyright infringement should always be a concern, whether you have nefarious intentions or not.
That’s why it’s so critically important to know how to cite a website if it inspired your work in any way.
Properly citing your online sources is important because it’s not only morally correct but there may be future consequences for you if you fail to do so.
It may be tedious to take the time to cite a website following these precise rules, but they aren’t necessarily complex.
Explore examples online if you’re not sure what to do, and comment with any further questions!