Using internet search engines to obtain medical information: a comparative study

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USING INTERNET SEARCH ENGINES TO OBTAIN MEDICAL INFORMATION: A COMPARATIVE STUDY.

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

The Internet has become one of the most important means to obtain health and medical information. It is often the first step in checking for basic information about a disease and its treatment. The search results are often useful to general users. Various search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask.com can play an important role in obtaining medical information for both medical professionals and lay people. However, the usability and effectiveness of various search engines for medical information have not been comprehensively compared and evaluated.

OBJECTIVE:

To compare major Internet search engines in their usability of obtaining medical and health information.

METHODS:

We applied usability testing as a software engineering technique and a standard industry practice to compare the four major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask.com) in obtaining health and medical information. For this purpose, we searched the keyword breast cancer in Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask.com and saved the results of the top 200 links from each search engine. We combined nonredundant links from the four search engines and gave them to volunteer users in an alphabetical order. The volunteer users evaluated the websites and scored each website from 0 to 10 (lowest to highest) based on the usefulness of the content relevant to breast cancer. A medical expert identified six well-known websites related to breast cancer in advance as standards. We also used five keywords associated with breast cancer defined in the latest release of Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine-Clinical Terms (SNOMED CT) and analyzed their occurrence in the websites.

RESULTS:

Each search engine provided rich information related to breast cancer in the search results. All six standard websites were among the top 30 in search results of all four search engines. Google had the best search validity (in terms of whether a website could be opened), followed by Bing, Ask.com, and Yahoo!. The search results highly overlapped between the search engines, and the overlap between any two search engines was about half or more. On the other hand, each search engine emphasized various types of content differently. In terms of user satisfaction analysis, volunteer users scored Bing the highest for its usefulness, followed by Yahoo!, Google, and Ask.com.

CONCLUSIONS:

Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Ask.com are by and large effective search engines for helping lay users get health and medical information. Nevertheless, the current ranking methods have some pitfalls and there is room for improvement to help users get more accurate and useful information. We suggest that search engine users explore multiple search engines to search different types of health information and medical knowledge for their own needs and get a professional consultation if necessary.

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