Medical Advice: Better From An MD Than A Search Engine


Because I am involved in healthcare IT and search marketing I am just plain dumbfounded by Matt Cutts’ recent blog post regarding the purchasing of links to gain PageRank. In the blog post Matt points to a number of poorly written paid posts that endorse certain medical procedures. Matt discusses how a life or death medical procedure could be unduly influenced by these paid posts by affecting the rankings on Google’s search results. 

In this case the search query that Matt is concerned about is radiosurgery. Radiosurgery is a non-invasive medical procedure. It is brain surgery that is performed without opening the skull, using directed beams of ionizing radiation.

Cutts cites a number of the top links on the SERPs that he says are authoritative sites where a person can read about radiosurgery.

First, medicine is a business, a very large one at that, it’s very lovely that Cutts cites there is an objective Wikipedia. The number of articles about Wikipedia’s accuracy has been including many reports in the New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. In particular Wikipedia’s policy of allowing non-experts to contribute on any subject certainly concerns most healthcare professionals.

The another link that is cited is the International RadioSurgery Association, the professional association of physician, hospitals and equipment manufacturers that are involved in performing these type of operations. This is an informative site but in the end it is still a trade association. In particular the Association represents most of the major equipment manufacturers in the industry. Here is their about page:

IRSA is an independent organization dedicated to providing educational information on stereotactic radiosurgery to governments, regulatory agencies, insurers and referring physicians. The Association provides emotional support, education and referrals for treatment to patients worldwide.

Cutts cites the Mayo Clinic as an objective source and a good reliable link. But who actually patrols the these links to make sure the information posted is accurate including the Mayo Clinic, which to quote one physician I interviewed, “Has its own agenda and overhead to meet, no less competing with other world class cancer facilities like M.D. Anderson and Sloan-Kettering”

The equipment manufacturers are ALL busy influencing “buying” decisions who in this case are doctors, not patients. A 2004 study by National Institute of Health studied the prevalence of gift giving from the pharmaceutical industry and medical equipment manufacturers to radiation oncologists to determine whether or not the size of accepted gifts influences their opinions regarding gifts. Here are the conclusions:

This study demonstrates that: (1) Gift giving in radiation oncology is endemic. (2) Although each physician is likely to consider himself or herself immune from being influenced by gift giving, he or she is suspicious that the “next person” is influenced. (3) There is a correlation between the willingness of individual physician to accept gifts of high value and their sympathy toward this practice.

It would make a lot more sense to get a second opinion in something of this nature. Many insurance companies actually encourage getting a second opinion. Many people are afraid to ask for a second opinion but should be encouraged to do just that. In what manner is Google educating people to seek this advice? Here is a situation where we have people desperately searching the web for information when they should be talking to other professionals. 

The individual’s specific situation would almost guarantee that they will not have the skill set to use a general search engine to reinforce the advice they will receive from a physician. The title of a recent CNN article says it all, “Internet medical sources should augment, not replace doctors’ advice_ ASK your doctor for good URLs, and they most likely will give you good advice.

It is naïve and disingenuous for computer scientist to act like they are doctors when they are not. 

It is naïve or cynical for computer scientist to spread FUD about link buying when its business model is based on selling links.

It is cynical twice again when there isn’t any doubt some its advertisers are the pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturers. This is a real kick in the teeth, undoubtedly since Cutts’ blog the search rankings have changed. As of December 17, 2007 a link from John Hopkins is ranking higher then the Mayo Clinic. Did John Hopkins just become the new leading teaching college on radiosurgery? Of course this isn’t the case, for multiple reasons that are not known to the public but only Google and a few very smart SEO Gurus (just kidding) the rankings changed.

Finally, Google invented the Page Rank game. Google is like a casino that constantly changes the rules. Those that adapt to these changes stay on top.


  1. No lay person should use the Internet as the sole source of medical information for a serious condition, because a little knowledge can be dangerous, and a doctor should always be consulted if you suspect you have a serious condition. But no intelligent person should rely entirely on their doctor to educate them about a medical condition, or be the sole source of “URLs” where they can seek additional information. The days of the patient as passive bystander are gone; the pharmaceutical company’s admonition that “only your doctor can decide” is no longer the final word for most. As you note, doctors have their own conflicts of interest, and I’ve yet to meet a doctor who can spit out a long string of URLs for me to consult. And sadly, many users erroneously presume that a search engine will spit out all the best sources of information on a topic on the first SERP, and won’t bother to find what they may be missing.

    And this is where human-powered search enters the picture. FindingDulcinea (www.finding and a number of other companies filtered search through human judgment and insight to eliminate clutter and bring quality content to the fore. We do much more than merely presenting a series of links; we also explain how to approach your research (“remain skeptical at all times”) and what to do with the results (“Always verify information by confirming it with multiple sources” and “Each site must be examined independently to ensure that the available information is accurate, up to date, objective, and authoritative” and “information is not a substitute for a doctor’s advice, based on an in-person examination and evaluation”).


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