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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