How WebMD May Unfairly Influence Your Health Choices — Through Search

How WebMD May Unfairly Influence Your Health Choices -- Through SearchGo ahead and type in virtually any health or mental health condition into Google. Heck, even try a popular medication or two.

Time and time again, you’ll notice a reliable trend — 2 or 3 of the top 10 search results are nearly always going to be WebMD.

But not necessarily search results that link to WebMD.com. Instead, what you’ll find is that only one of those results goes to WebMD.com. The other one or two will go to properties that are completely owned and operated by WebMD, but have different names, looks, and layouts. And ostensibly, different content…

Let’s look at a few common examples.

Let’s start off with a medication, like Lexapro.1 Three of the top 10 results go to a WebMD property:

  • http://www.webmd.com/drugs/drug-63990-Lexapro+Oral.aspx?drugid=63990

  • http://www.rxlist.com/lexapro-drug.htm
  • http://www.medicinenet.com/escitalopram-oral/article.htm

Panic attack? 3 in the top 20 search results are from WebMD:

  • http://www.medicinenet.com/panic_disorder/article.htm

  • http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/
  • http://www.emedicinehealth.com/panic_attacks/article_em.htm (top 20 now, but was in top 10 in 2012)

For depression, three of the top 40 results are WebMD:2

  • http://www.webmd.com/depression/

  • http://www.medicinenet.com/depression/article.htm (top 40 now, but was in top 10 in 2012)
  • http://www.emedicinehealth.com/depression/article_em.htm (top 40 now, but was in top 10 in 2012)

How about rosacea? Again, three of the top 10 results are WebMD:

  • http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/rosacea-topic-overview

  • http://www.medicinenet.com/rosacea/article.htm
  • http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1071429-overview

Obesity? Three of the top 20 results are WebMD:

  • http://www.webmd.com/diet/what-is-obesity

  • http://www.medicinenet.com/obesity_weight_loss/article.htm
  • http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/123702-overview

Skin cancer? Two are in the top 10:

  • http://www.medicinenet.com/image-collection/skin_cancer_picture/picture.htm

  • http://www.webmd.com/melanoma-skin-cancer/
  • http://www.emedicinehealth.com/skin_cancer/article_em.htm (not in top 30 now, but was in 2012)

Knee pain? 2 out of 10 yet again:

  • http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/knee-pain/knee-problems-and-injuries-topic-overview

  • http://www.medicinenet.com/knee_pain/article.htm
  • http://www.emedicinehealth.com/knee_pain_overview/article_em.htm (top 30 now, but was in top 10 in 2012)

I think you get the picture. Don’t believe these simple tests? Peer-reviewed research I conducted and published earlier this year confirms this finding (Grohol et al., 2013).

To be clear, the following websites are owned and operated by WebMD, and are overseen by the same medical experts and, apparently, pretty much the same editorial staff:

  • MedicineNet.com

  • RxList.com
  • eMedicineHealth.com
  • Medscape.com
  • WebMD.com

Why does WebMD consistently and reliably get so many of their websites into the top 10 or 20 search results for virtually any health condition? That means that what you’re getting is not 10 unique results, but only 7 or 8 results that aren’t WebMD. I don’t think most people visiting Google appreciate that this is even happening.

A better question may be this: why does WebMD run multiple, separate sites like this, except, in my opinion, in order to game the Google search results? After all, all of these websites (in addition to many more not in the top 10 that WebMD also operates) offer virtually the exact same information, overseen by the same corporate and editorial teams. The only significant, meaningful difference is that the name of the website is not “WebMD” (and sure, each looks a bit different).

In virtually every other content area, companies do not run multiple websites with the same or similar content, and have those results appear so reliably as WebMD seems to do be able to do with Google.

Why this is allowed is beyond me — but perhaps it is getting better, as Google seems to have become aware of what WebMD is doing and has dinged at least one of these sites (eMedicineHealth.com). It’s a seemingly deceptive practice3 that I believe isn’t in the best interests of people searching for health information, since most people appreciate more choices and variety in their search results.

Reference

Grohol, JM, Slimowicz, J, Granda, R. (2013). The Quality of Mental Health Information Commonly Searched For on the Internet. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2013.0258

 

Footnotes
  1. When I wrote the first draft of this article in mid-2012, 3 of the top 10 results were reliably a WebMD property. Luckily, it appears Google has caught on and now usually only 2 of the results go to a WebMD property. []
  2. All my searches are conducted on Google.com from a non-logged in, private-browsing window, to ensure they aren’t influenced by my search history. In addition, just to be safe, all cookies are cleared before conducting these searches. []
  3. I use the word “deceptive” because I believe that most people will see the different name of the website at a different domain in the search results and assume it’s a different organization — not WebMD. []
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Comments

8 Responses to “How WebMD May Unfairly Influence Your Health Choices — Through Search”

  1. Ellen Sonet says:

    WebMD sells advertising. The more impressions (views) they can deliver, the more $$ they can make. By hosting multiple sites that target different audiences, they are able to reach more unique users which makes them particularly attractive to advertisers.

  2. Yes, I understand their business model. What I don’t understand is how WebMD gets away with a practice that other webmasters have been banned from Google for doing — creating multiple websites with the same or similar content, from the same company.

    Imagine if a company like Walmart decided to create a dozen websites on “Buy the best TV at the best price here.” Google wouldn’t allow that for very long, and they’d penalize Walmart (as they actually did another retailer, JCPenney, back in 2011 — http://www.webpronews.com/jcpenney-gets-caught-gaming-google-2011-02 ).

    WebMD is doing something similar — gaming search results so that more people visit one of their sites. The only logical reason for multiple sites offering the same kind of content (and really, if you read the pages, it’s the same content) is to game search engines like Google. Increasing their traffic and thereby increasing their revenues.

    It’s, in my opinion, a deceptive practice and one that Google (and other search engines) should not allow. I’m not aware of any other company that is as large as WebMD and gets away with this sort of bad behavior in a space as large as e-health.

    And it’s not like it’s new — it’s been going on now for at least 6 or 7 years, if not longer. I just got so fed up with it, I had to write about it.

  3. Dr. Grohol,
    Excellent discussion.

    Professionals as well as e-patients must be aware of the diversity of excellent medical/health resources on the web. My work on health resources from 2004 has identified the best online medical resources and continues to grow.

    Smart medicine is better health!

    Harlan R. Weinberg, MD
    Founder and Creator, Knowledge of Medicine
    http://www.knowledgeofmedicine.com

    • While I commend you on your efforts, I’m not sure what you mean by the “best online medical resources,” as there is no criteria on your website about what makes these resources “the best.” Are they reviewed by a committee of doctors and patients? Is there a set of objective, scored criteria you use to judge them (like DISCERN)?

      Link directories are old-school and unfortunately don’t do much to help solve the core problem, since most people don’t go to a link directory to start their search (not since 1996 and Yahoo!).

  4. Jake says:

    WebMD didnt create those other websites, they acquired them over time. They were independent businesses that were ranked in search on their own. Your Wal-Mart example works in the event that Wal-Mart found a search term they liked, say “big screen TV”, and then bought 3 of the websites listed in the Top 10.

    Today Google penalizes companies for having the same content in multiple places. They do not penalize you if you have unique content on unique sites – aka a network of websites. This is done all the time.

    To be honest, I think the drama you are creating with your article is a bit nonsensical. After all, Miller/Coors owns a number of beer brands, and as a consumer I may think Linenkugels is in fact a craft beer owned by a small family when in fact they sold to Coors. Does that make the beer any less credible? Less tasty?

    People trust WebMD – warts and all. Good or bad, that is how it is.

    • Hi Jake,

      Let me assure you that as someone who’s been in this space — and monitoring it closely — for the past two decades, those websites that WebMD acquired were not ranked in the top 20 of Google search results at the time of acquisition (the one exception is RxList).

      This is not unique content — it is very similar content on the exact same conditions.

      You cannot with a straight face tell me that WebMD’s editorial team is perfectly happy putting some content on WebMD and then puts some lesser-quality content on MedicineNet.com. What would be the purpose, other than to gain (and game) more of the search results for that content?

      The beer analogy doesn’t hold water, since beer isn’t really equivalent to information. If you were looking to provide the highest quality health information online, wouldn’t you want to do so in one place?

      The only logical reason for publishing multiple health websites with this kind of similar information is to increase one’s Internet footprint amongst different sites, therefore garnering more than your fair share of search results. Resulting in greater revenues for WebMD, but gaming Google in the process.

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