Searches for Health Information Diluted by Junk

health searchAfter more than a decade you'd think the quality of health information on the Web would be getting better, but it's still abysmal. Or perhaps more accurately, quality content is becoming harder to find as search engines swell up with optimized sites -- the natural evolution of "link farms" -- that regurgitate generic information festooned with a spray of advertising links.

At best, you wind up wasting time on a crummy site like this one, registered with fake WHOIS information and littered with ads for indigestion treatments. Then there is this site, the top result in a Google search on the words "kidney stones symptoms," that's got all the value of most parked pages, existing merely to harvest PPC revenue.Unfortunately, there's not much help for the novice searcher other than to become a more informed consumer of health information. For instance, I can tell this relatively pedestrian diet site is not likely to give me any immediate help, because I have been evaluating, testing and writing about health sites for a decade. But what might someone else think?

The worst case scenario is stumbling on potentially harmful information. This site, in its wisdom, advocates drinking beer as a treatment for kidney stones. If you're taking pain medication with codeine in it, as you might well be if you're suffering from kidney stones, drinking beer won't hasten their passage. It might, though, hasten the dirt nap that one day claims us all.

By the way, type "alcohol codeine" into Google and the number five organic result is this illegal online pharmacy purporting to sell 30 pills for $102. You can tell it's illegal by looking up its registration info, which tells you: "The remote WHOIS server didn't respond to our request." The number one search result for "alcohol oxycodone" in Google is this site, hosted in Russia (Note: this particular search was performed in the UK, though Google.com was used rather than Google.co.uk) that, in its words, functions as "an international message board that educates the public about responsible drug use (with a focus on MDMA) by promoting free discussion. We advocate harm reduction and attempt to eliminate misinformation." Well, yeah, there's that, but there's also a lot of bad advice for chasing potentiated highs.

By their nature and visual construction, search engines set priorities for us. They create ordered lists according, supposedly, to relevance. When someone looks at the top 10 most prominently listed sites on a Google page in a search for joint pain or concussion symptoms, they naturally assume the higher the ranking, the more important or relevant the information. That's not the case, because the system is being radically gamed. All but one of the sites we have talked about -- the exception is the Bluelight drug information site -- are some combination of pay-per-click or parked or "PPC" pages, heavily search-engine optimized (SEO) to wind up high in organic, that is, unpaid search engine rankings. And we've been using Google, which is the gold standard in terms of trying to evaluate content risks.

Here are some steps to take for finding the most relevant health search information:
1. Use more than the first page of search engine results. Go two or three pages in at least.
2. Seek non-profit sites. Even some of the best for-profit health information sites accept ad listings from dubious sources. The best way to tell you are on the right track is if the site address ends in .gov or .edu. Unfortunately, the .org suffix generally reserved for non-profits has been extensively compromised by scam artists.
3. Look for seals from third-party organizations such as VIPPS for pharmacies, but keep in mind these can be easily faked or are weak and unenforced.
4. The best sites, whether non-profit or for-profit, will list some sort of evidence that a medical expert has reviewed the content.
5. Pick up the phone and call or go down to the drugstore and talk to a pharmacist. It's free, they're usually helpful, and they usually know what they are talking about.

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