Google search is unreliable for health information: study

The digital world is constantly changing – Facebook is now Meta! Critics say this disconnect has led to a cluttered design, camouflaged ads like search results, even a search algorithm that some say is showing signs of wear and tear: ProPublica reporter Jesse Eisinger recently tweeted he thinks Google searches have gotten “considerably worse,” and he got 1,000 likes and nods from everyone, from Chris Hayes to Time national correspondent Molly Ball.

A new study released this week examines this from a different perspective: the role of search engines as benchmark health advisors. Data scientists at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg in Germany and the Federal University of the Urals in Russia wanted to see how search engines handle medical disinformation. Given the myths that have circulated since the start of the pandemic, the authors argue that it is more important than ever to promote accurate and credible online health resources. After all, we live in a time when people are panicking buying horse dewormer as a cure for COVID-19, and a member of the White House press corps rave on social networks that the vaccines contain “a bioluminescent marker called LUCIFERASE so that you can be followed.” “

So the researchers studied the results of the health-related queries they searched for in Google and its Russian counterpart, Yandex. They claim that the better results from both sites often included poor health advice. To get these results, they scoured 1.5 billion Yandex searches to identify the 30 most common queries that contained both a medical problem and some kind of alternative remedy (garlic to treat a toothache, ginger to treat a cough. , leeches to stop hemorrhoids, milk thistle for hepatitis), some of which are medically doubtful.

These queries were connected to Yandex, and the authors reviewed the snippets for the top 10 results. Snippets are the short strings of text under blue result links that search engines like Google and Yandex automatically extract to show how well web pages match user requests. This is all that most users will ever know about most of the pages that appear in their search results, which is why the authors have chosen to analyze only those snippets and not look at the pages themselves. Then they entered the same queries into Google and studied the snippets of Google’s top 10 results.

“We also annotated whether the extracts contained warnings about the potential health risks of using either alternative medicine, as some researchers would just use them at home,” the lead author said. Alexander Bondarenko. Fast business.

Their findings were that almost half of the extracts from Yandex confirmed some sort of medical disbelief, while only 13% noted that the treatments are linked to health risks. The problems with the Google snippets were “not as pronounced”, they write, but they were “still worrisome, as we found evidence of potential health risks for all questions in our study.”

Their conclusion is that search engine snippets for health-related queries do not necessarily direct people to medically sound resources. On the contrary, they can reinforce bad traits – confirmation bias in users, content bias in search engines – which the authors say are “particularly relevant” when users research health.

Fast business showed the study to Google, and a spokesperson responded that its methodology “is not an accurate way to measure the quality of search results because it only looks at short snippets of website text, and not the author of the website or the information it actually contains. “

Google also claimed that there were flaws in their searches. For example, he says the study oversimplifies complex medical treatment issues into yes-no binary. (Leeches may be a reckless home remedy, but studies show that they can reduce pain from hemorrhoids in some people. Additionally, the authors say that it is dangerous for pregnant women to drink coffee, even if the ‘World Health Organization says occasional small amounts are okay.) Google adds that the study also doesn’t recognize that a two-line snippet on the results page might contain seemingly solid medical advice, but people Rarely base their internet searches on extracts only, and that doesn’t mean the website itself would be reliable and error-free.

High stakes research

Google has started to point out that health-related searches fall into a special category that they call YMYL (“Your Money or Your Life”). This category encompasses topics such as medicine, finance, news and voting information, high stakes topics which, if poorly presented, could negatively impact health, happiness, stability. financial or security of a person. As an example, the company noted that Googling “covid vaccines are dangerous” raises a very high bar for pages to fade to ensure they are trustworthy, authoritative, and relevant. Fast business tried Googling that phrase, and indeed the best results were from well-respected, geographically relevant health authorities (the CDC, FDA, Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic) or news outlets (the New Yorker, Reuters, NPR, the Wall Street newspaper).

Then again, Google’s search algorithm would likely rank these sites very high anyway. Niche queries – like asking if a plant cures a disease – are exactly like the types of research that might be problematic, and when Fast business Googled some of the newspaper’s search queries, it didn’t fit that laser focus on health. Top 10 Results for “Does Garlic Help Relieve Toothache?” Included three larger sites – Colgate,, and Healthline – but the others were dental offices in Texas, California, Alabama, Michigan, and Australia that recommended trying it, one of them. ‘them stating:’ Garlic works wonders against toothache. Garlic has antibiotic properties that will help heal your gums.

Meanwhile, for another of the study’s questions, on celandine poppy used to cure cancer, Google’s most featured snippet says, “Early research suggests that the injection [celandine] intravenously under medical supervision improves survival in some people with colorectal, bladder, pancreatic or breast cancer. But WebMD says, “Not enough is known about the safety of giving celandine products intravenously. Be careful and avoid using it.

Google may or may not want to control this, especially with so much other misinformation to deal with, but it sounds like a problem someone needs to think about.

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