Google Health: Your Interest or Self-Interest?

Like its fellow Brobdingnagian competitor Microsoft, Google has plans to enter the world of personal health in–no surprise here–a big way.

Both firms plan to offer medical records, improved health search and other features designed to profitably entangle health consumers in the management of their personal health care. They’ll join the long-established pack leader WebMD, the deep-pocketed Revolution Health* and at least half a dozen other legit contenders for some market share of health consumers.

There are screen shots floating around of alpha versions of Google’s personal health record tools. You can preview a beta of Microsoft’s new health search on the Health and Fitness channel on msn.com.

But I was playing around with Google’s new health search the other day and was struck by a wave of nausea. 

Put “depression” in the Search Engine of First Resort and you’ll see (firstly) a couple of Adwords purchases stripped across the top of the results, then a second horizontal strip of links, which are choices by which you can filter your search further (i.e., Treatment, From Medical Authorities, Alternative Medicine). All of the following results are said to come from what are called Google co-op partners, described as trusted sources of health information. This appears to be true.

But if you do not click on one of those filters, you get Google’s organic results. And the first result when I put “depression” in the search engine was  depression.com, a site devoted to the deadly disease sponsored by. . . GlaxoSmithKline, maker of the depression drug Wellbutrin. Depression.com describes the disease and lists treatments that include talk therapy and, of course, medication.

The only medication the site acknowledges is Wellbutrin. Not Prozac. Not Paxil, not Zoloft or any of the newer drugs. It mentions electroconvulsive therapy, for god’s sake, but not Prozac.

This creates a potentially terribly misleading scenario. A user–aware that Google has a new health-related search method that filters out the heavily SEO’d, popularity-based claptraps that a Google search often produces–in good faith does a search on a disease name and gets results topped by one of the heavily SEO’d, popularity-based claptraps the new search is supposed to filter out.

To filter out commercially self-interested sites, a user has to click on one of the search-narrowing terms like “treatments.” 

To be fair, that top listing for depression.com is not purchased by GSK. They earned their top listing the old fashioned way, which is to say buying the best keyword url and then SEOing the hell out of the site.

Google may defend the practice of holding back its list of filtered, trusted sites until a user clicks to narrow the search.

But assuming at some point Google will promote its “health information from trusted partners” search results when it debuts its full health service next year, I believe it’s a misleading practice that should be changed by launch.

It also raises the big question posed by Google’s entry into the personal health space: Will users be able to trust a company whose economic engine is fueled by delivering economically self-interested advertising to users–and whose practice is to deliver popularity-based, SEO’d results in response to searches–to provide disinterested information on personal health? 

I don’t know the answer to that. But so far, the Mountain View collossus seems to be in danger of putting misleading information in front of some very vulnerable consumers who are looking for a credible source of information on a very serious matter.

It’s too early to call that sick. But not to consider it an early warning sign worth monitoring. 

Explore posts in the same categories: Google, health, Microsoft, Web 2.0

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