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Search engines and usability for finding medical information online: a new study

search for health literacy postsHow effective are Internet search engines at helping people find health and medical information online? According to a recent study in the open access Journal of Medical Internet Research,

Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and are by and large effective search engines for helping lay users get health and medical information. Nevertheless, the current ranking methods have some pitfalls and there is room for improvement to help users get more accurate and useful information. We suggest that search engine users explore multiple search engines to search different types of health information and medical knowledge for their own needs and get a professional consultation if necessary.

Researchers searched for “breast cancer” using the four top search engines, combined the top 200 non-redundant results from each source into a list, and then gave that list to eight volunteers to evaluate, scoring there relevance to research on a scale of 0-10 (low to high). Volunteers were all highly educated, most of them with backgrounds in science. They were provided with six “gold standard” sites for information on this topic to compare against before making their determination:

  1. U.S. National Cancer Institute
  2. American Cancer Society
  3. Mayo Clinic
  4. MedicineNet
  5. Wikipedia
  6. Susan G. Komen for the Cure

The volunteers tended to score the popular science and personal websites the highest overall, while scoring corporation and advertising websites the lowest. Researchers conclude that search engines do provide good information overall, though their sample is small, both in number of participants and topics searched.

This study has a number of serious flaws in it, and begs the question: is a little bit of mediocre research better than no research at all? First, the high education levels of the volunteer evaluators, plus their choices to score popular science websites above commercial websites indicate high levels of information literacy. Yet other research shows that over 90 million adults in the U.S. (36% of the population) have poor health literacy. How would people like this evaluate and select the right sources using a search engine? As any librarian watching patrons search will tell you, most people never look beyond the first three search results, let alone the first page of results. And search engines like Google employ algorithms to customize search results based on your previous searches, which may or may not give you the best resources.

Next, the researchers note the shortcomings of search engines in “ranking the websites according to their usefulness,” and recommend that “users apply multiple search engines when looking for medical and health information online, instead of using only a single search engine.” As a librarian and past computer consultant, I’ve learned that many people cannot distinguish between “the Internet” and a web browser, let alone utilize and critically evaluate search engines and the search results they generate. Librarians and researchers are the professionals best suited to handle that task.

Finally, while the “gold standard” sites probably contain all the basic information on breast cancer from the view of their medical expert, how readable and understandable is their content across different groups and ability levels? Had the researchers chosen to include a librarian on their team, she or he could have provided important insight and evaluation of these sites in this area. And why was a site like MedicineNet included while MedlinePlus was excluded from the short list? MedlinePlus is advertisement-free, offers information in Spanish and other languages, and is written at a level that can be understood by a wider audience.

While search engines will, generally speaking, help end users find helpful health and medical information, the will inevitably lead some people to inaccurate or misleading information. And with so many people having low information and health literacy skills, it is imperative that they be directed to quality, evidence-based resources for answers to their questions. This study does nothing to assist in that endeavor.


Kutner, M. (2007). Literacy in everyday life: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Wang, L., Wang, J., Wang, M., Li, Y., Liang, Y., & Xu, D. (2012). Using Internet Search Engines to Obtain Medical Information: A Comparative Study. Journal of medical Internet research, 14(3).