Searching for Health Information Online Dangerous

Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes

Approximately eight million Americans search for health information online every day [1]. However, the information those health seekers are reading may not be very healthy at all. A new study by the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest recently reported that the information prominently displayed in search engine results was not only misleading and confusing, but dangerous for patients [2]. Case in point: using two safe and effective prescription medications (Crestor and Avandia) as an example, nearly 65% of the first three pages of Google search results came from sites that were biased or contained unverified information. Add to this the fact that most search engine users click on a result within the first three pages of search results [3] and people searching for health information online are likely to be viewing websites that aren’t credible or trustworthy.

At Highlight HEALTH 2.0, guest writer Matthew Krajewski focuses on the importance of information categorization and online health search. In his article Health Web 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, Matthew discusses health search in the context of internet technology trends. His article echoes the difficulty with search engines today:

Standard search results will require a user to determine for themselves what is a trustworthy source and what is plain spam. RightHealth treats the categorization of health information much like how an editorial health site would treat their articles: insuring results are relevant, trustworthy and of value to the end user.

I wrote about The Trust and Credibility of Healthcare Blogs last year and discussed the Health On the Net (HON) Foundation, a non-profit organization that is attempting to guide the growing community of healthcare providers and consumers on the World Wide Web to sound, reliable medical information and expertise through quality assessment and systematic and stringent peer review. Both Highlight HEALTH and the Highlight HEALTH Web Directory are HONcode accredited.

When searching for health information online, be sure to look for credibility seals, such as accreditation from HON or URAC. Make sure the health information you find is dated and cites references. Ask yourself, does the website link to other sources of credible information? Remember that health information found online is only valuable when that information is correct.

Additional health search resources can be found in theHighlight HEALTH Web Directory.


  1. Fox S. Online Health Search 2006: Most internet users start at a search engine when looking for health information online. Very few check the source and date of the information they find. Washington (DC): Pew Internet and American Life Project. 2006 Oct 29.
  2. Goldberg et al. Insta-Americans: The Empowered (and Imperiled) Health Care Consumer in the Age of Internet Medicine. The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. 2008 Jan.
  3. iProspect Search Engine User Behavior Study. iProspect. 2006 Apr.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.


  1. One very valuable tool that essentially mitigates that problem (though admittedly is a manual process) is available on Google. Try this: Go to Google and search for “Crestor.” At the top of the screen you will see a “menu” that says “Refine your search” if you click “For Patients” (or “For Health Professionals”) the links will be refiltered and you can see who has labeled them. For me, the 4th link down on Crestor search is labeled by HON.

    I tested this with several other terms to gauge how good Google is at catching medical terms. It caught “fat embolism” and “mitral valve prolapse,” It did not catch AV Canal or the expanded Atrioventricular canal; however, for pathology that obscure the top 4 links were from American heart (2), University of Virginia, and May Clinic. So probably a none issue for more obscure diseases (they aren’t victims of the kind of link spamming that things like drugs and erectile disfunction get).

  2. Hi Dan: great tip, thanks for the information.

  3. Unfortunately, if the financial motive is great enough, low quality medically related websites can and will crowd the top positions of popular web searches for medicine and treatments. The barrage of ads on television make this situation even worse. It is not hard for those who can spam to figure out what the public will be searching for and to provide “doorway” pages that link out to affiliate sites for referral income. Education is not the goal of these sites.

  4. Thanks for your reference to findings from the 2006 iProspect Search Engine User Behavior Study. If your readers would like to access all the findings of that study — or any other iProspect search engine marketing study — they can feel free to do so with our compliments (don’t even have to fill out a form).

  5. Great post, as always. I think that a related topic is the damage done by pharmaceutical advertising, though I’d be interested in your thoughts. I believe that pharmaceutical advertising produces large numbers of people who don’t know enough to be more than dangerous, and it often seems difficult for physicians to deny certain medications to their patients when the patients demand them. The other dark side of this equation is the huge amount of money spent by drug companies on this advertising. It is always wise to be an educated consumer, and it doesn’t make sense to treat individual doctors as infallible, but interpreting the medical world with one or more trained experts, and without Madison Avenue’s contributions, seems (to me) to be the safe way to go. Jim

  6. You are right. Readers need to figure out the credibility of the health information on the internet by themselves. In some cases, those resources can only be references.

  7. Thanks for the link Bill.

    Hi Jim: I have to wonder how much damage is really done by pharmaceutical advertising. Isn’t it a standing joke with many people today regarding pharmaceutical ads and the possible side effects? Aren’t many of the conditions for advertised medications perceived as diseases created by the pharmaceutical industry? I’d be interested to see if there was a study done that evaluated the influence and effectiveness of pharmaceutical advertising. IMO, the greatest problem it presents is the impression that everything can be cured with a pill. I advocate health consumer education (hence this blog) and believe doctors should always be influenced by scientific evidence, not financial reward.

    Thanks for you comment Emmy!

  8. Hi Walter:

    I think that the effectiveness of pharmaceutical management is very significant, and draw this conclusion from anecdotal evidence and what I presume to be market studies that inspire pharma companies to advertise to aggressively. People may joke about the fine print in TV ads, but when they go to their doctors, they want the pills. If ads were ineffective, there would be no great reason to oversee them and punish companies for overstating the positive sides of their cases, yet the oversight and fines do happen.

    However, the other severe damage caused by advertising, in my opinion, results from advertising budgets exceeding research budgets. This has been going on for many years at some companies. Given how difficult research and development has become in the medical area, they money should be going to research alone IMHO.

  9. One of the problems is that as with many things, it all comes down to money. People want to make money online with websites, and many webmasters will just throw content together on a site for the sole purpose of getting high rankings for competitive search terms. If they can get listed on the first page of search engines, then they will get traffic which is all they want.


  1. […] don’t consistently check the source and date of the health reference they find [2]. Indeed, searching for health information online is dangerous and finding credible, up-to-date sources of health information can be a […]