Asking 'Dr. Google' could yield inaccurate health advice, study finds

Google Search might be pushing users toward incorrect health information based on information highlighted in search snippets, according to a Nov. 1 study published by the Association for Computing Machinery. 

For the study, researchers around the world examined how search engines promote correct or incorrect online search results. They looked at 1.5 billion search questions — 71 million of which were asking about symptoms, health conditions and disease.

Four notes:

  1. The researchers ran a pilot study on health-related questions mentioning diseases and possible misinformation surrounding each condition. Researchers examined the snippets annotated by Google Search and its Russian counterpart Yandex, including whether a health risk warning label was indicated.

  2. The study found that 44 percent of snippets were misleading, some of which suggested a remedy that was incorrect. Seventeen percent of snippets had instructions on how to use an incorrect remedy and only 13 percent had a warning label about potential health risks.

  3. The researchers found that search engine snippets for health questions don't always point users to accurate information, and they may even enforce confirmation bias in users, Fast Company reported Nov. 3.  

  4. A spokesperson for Google told Fast Company that the study "is not an accurate way to measure the quality of search results, since it only looks at short snippets of text from the website, not who authored the website or what information it actually contained." The spokesperson also said the study does not acknowledge that Google Search users rarely base their internet research on snippets alone.

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