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Cyberchondria and online health info

Posted by Michael Bloch in online world (Sunday November 30, 2008 )

I’m a little hesitant to dig too deep when researching health information on the web as a sniffle and a sore throat can wind up being ebola.

I’m a big fan of the medical comedy/drama, House – Hugh Laurie would have to be one of the best actors around – but after watching a few episodes back to back on DVD, I become convinced I have a rare brain tumor….and Lupus. What’s with Lupus and House anyway?

I’m sure many doctors sometimes curse the plethora of online health info too; with concerned patients coming in and starting the conversation with “I was doing some research on the web…”

Self diagnosis is a tricky thing and can lead to cyberchondria – the online equivalent of hypochondria. With around 2% of all searches connected to health topics, it’s a growing issue.

Microsoft recently performed a study of how people search for medical information online, focusing on the extent to which looking up common symptoms can escalate into searches content on serious, rare conditions.

The survey found that approximately a third of searches that start out with common symptoms such as a headache then escalate their search to more serious conditions such as brain tumors.

From a marketing and search engine optimization aspect, one of the most interesting conclusions from the survey was the higher up in the results a listing was, the more credible it was perceived to be.

Sometimes we forget that Joe Surfer doesn’t understand how a search engine ranks pages; so it doesn’t matter if you’re number 5 on a term and have top quality information; the junky result at no.1 is still going to trump you traffic-wise.. and by a substantial margin.

For more interesting insights into how people search for health information, you can download the report ‘Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search” here (PDF).

Excuse me while I go and read about what this irritating cough might be. I’m sure it’s Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (yep, it’s a real condition – and the longest word in the English Dictionary).


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