Healthcare News & Insights

Study: Different search engines return different health information

Here’s some advice doctors should pass on to patients who use Internet searches to find health information: For the best results, use a variety of different search engines. 

Different search engines have different methods for determining what results to return. And especially when users are looking for health information, the same searches can return diverse information depending on what search engine is used, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Internet Medical Research.

For the study, researchers conducted a search for “breast cancer” on four major search engines: Google, Yahoo, Bing and Ask.com. They then compared the top 200 results returned from each.

Researchers said they were surprised at the differences in the websites returned by the different search engines. Only about half of the 800 sites compiled were returned by multiple search engines.

Does that mean some sites returned better results than others? That depends on who you ask. A group of eight nonphysician volunteers were given the lists of web sites and asked to rank them in terms of how useful they were. The volunteers all had different methods for how they evaluated the usefulness of the websites.

Researchers made general assessments about the types of sites each search engine tended to return:

  • Google — Mostly sites meant for the general population and sites from nonprofit groups
  • Yahoo — Mostly sites meant for the general population
  • Bing — Sites meant for the general population, as well as sites for professionals
  • Ask.com — Mostly sites from nonprofit groups

Both doctors and patients use the Internet to do medical research, and a lot of that involves using search engines. Two-thirds of physicians use search engines to look for information related to diagnoses and treatment of patients, according to a 2011 survey from Wolters Kluwer Health. And Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 80% of Internet users look for health information online.

As the study shows, what information those folks find could depend in large part on what tools they use to look. Therefore, doctors may want to use multiple search engines the next time they go online to do research — and they might want to encourage patients to do the same.

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