Competing with Dr. Google

At least 72% of American adults use “Dr. Google” to self-diagnose. While most go on to call or visit their doctors, some 35% (according to a Pew Research survey) are happy with their online diagnosis and don’t bother to see a professional.

Is this a problem? Other research has found that the information presented by Dr. Google is correct less than half the time. This means that many people must be basing their self-diagnosis on inaccurate information.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo decided to find out how health information (and misinformation) affected people’s behavior. They created a controlled study which showed accurate or inaccurate information on ten different medical treatments to subjects, in the form of search results with snippets saying treatments were either helpful or unhelpful. Subjects saw eight positive and two negative claims, or eight negative and two positive claims.

There was also a control group that didn’t see any search results. All the subjects were then asked to answer a question about the effectiveness of the each treatment. The control group answered correctly about 43% of the time. People shown search results slanted toward medical misinformation were right just 23% of the time — much less than people who had seen no search results at all. Those who saw search results skewed toward accurate information were correct 65% of the time.

Nobody clicked through

In the experiment, the search results included real results that searchers might have seen on Google’s SERPs. However, the subjects were just looking at artificially created search results, and didn’t have opportunity to click through and get fuller information, or to check references or validate the information in other ways.

But people don’t always click through anyway. Google has found that people looking for medical information will typically check 10 different sources before making a decision. But Moz tells us that just 79% of searchers click on any of the search results. For questions with a clear answer, fewer than half of searchers click through, and Google sometimes doesn’t even bother to provide options. You want to know what that is in Fahrenheit or where a famous person was born? Google will just give you the answer.

“Is cupping effective?” is not that kind of question.

The results are lukewarm at best. One snippet says outright that “research shows that cupping probably doesn’t work.” However, when we clicked through one article, we found this statement: “Unquestionably, those results indicate cupping is a very safe and powerful non-pharmacological approach.” In fact, these real-world SERPs are just about the same as the ones the Waterloo study used. Seeing mostly negative results on the SERPs, we’d probably answer that cupping is not effective, if we were presented with the question.

Unlike the Waterloo study, we don’t have researchers hanging around with a predetermined right answer. Neither do most searchers. But we know that most consumers can’t tell if an article is accurate, and many can’t read the information Google offers them.

How to beat the SERPs

Your patients probably do Google the treatments they’re considering, including treatments you’ve recommended. How can you make sure they don’t just go with the apparent consensus of the SERPs?

  • Give them your own answer in an article at your website. Hand them a printout or provide a URL or link. They trust you, and would rather know what you have to say about it than to see random answers.
  • Make sure your article shows up well in search. This increases your chances of turning up in the SERPs when your patients look for answers. If they visit your website — and you should encourage them to — your website is more likely to show up in SERPs than sites they don’t visit. Otherwise, this is a question of SEO.
  • Recommend sources of medical information that you trust. Maybe you don’t have a blog, or you haven’t yet posted an answer to a specific question. Maybe you just want to offer alternative sources. In any of these cases, tell your patients who you trust for medical information online. Remember that accurate sources of medical information are often unreadable, though. You owe it to your patients to have a blog.

We at Haden Interactive are devoted to increasing the amount of readable, accurate medical information available online. We’d be delighted to help you be part of that process. Call 479.966.9761 to start the conversation, or use our friendly contact form.

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