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Google Starts Editing Drug Results

Posted by | 9:22am on Monday, July 12, 2010

I'd prefer Google to be like Switzerland. 

When you search a popular drug on Google the first result is now from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Google launched this new feature on June 21, 2010.

If you aren’t familiar with search results, at the very top and side are Paid Search ads (Pay Per Click). Below and in the middle are the natural search engine results where Google has started inserting the NIH in the first slot.

Now when you search the generic or brand name of a popular prescription or over the counter medication you get a pill icon and a box that provides a brief description and links to side effects, instructions, etc. The links all take you to the NIH site where the information appears to be licensed from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

Here is what you’ll see if you search Advil.

Google search results for Advil

Why It Matters
When I raised this topic the other night during the pharma social media and marketing tweetchat (#SocPharm), people generally thought it was a good idea. They liked the fact that the top result was a credible, trusted source that would steer searchers in the right direction. I disagreed because I don’t like to see Google making editorial decisions and I’d prefer Google to be like Switzerland.

Who Made Google Health Editor?
Last year Google started doing the same thing with medical results called the “Health OneBox.” If you search for heart disease, you get links to Google Health, Mayo Clinic, MedLine Plus and WebMD. How did Google decide these were the best sources? And Google Health and WebMD are for-profit companies, at least MedLine Plus and the NIH are government organizations.

Google search results for Advil

Google is clearly moving away from neutrally displaying the most “relevant” results based on search algorithms to making editorial judgments. At what point does Google decide what the second and third results should be?

Do you think this is a good idea?

This post was contributed by Eileen O’Brien, Director of Search & Innovation for Siren Interactive. You can connect with her on Twitter at @eileenobrien.

(Image courtesy of joannao on Flickr)

About Eileen O'Brien

Eileen has more than 16 years of digital healthcare marketing experience. She is an opinion leader on social media and biopharma, and has been invited to speak at industry conferences and quoted in publications.

View other posts from Eileen

12 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • http://maureenhall.wordpress.com Maureen Hall

    Personally, I don’t think that Advil is harmed in any way by being trumped by the NIH in a Google search. This “just the facts, ma’am” description is useful, easily identified by the pill icon, and just as easily ignored as the paid search ads at the top.

    Where I do think you have a point is in the second example of a medical information search. I don’t see how Google Health can credibly put themselves in the same category as the Mayo Clinic, for starters. It seems like a conflict of interest, at best. And it does open them up to questions about the neutrality of their search algorithms.

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  • http://www.sireninteractive.com Katie Mihelich

    I agree with you, Eileen.

    When Google starts making editorial judgments it impedes on the integrity of the organic search results. The quality of the results will be effected and the playing field is skewed. What’s next?

    Does anyone know if they are doing this with any other industry or just pharmaceuticals?

  • http://twitter.com/eileenobrien Eileen

    Susannah Fox tweeted me a link to her excellent post, Health Sites: Some Are More Equal Than Others http://bit.ly/cQ1bxa. She discusses the Google Health OneBox feature, gets feedback from Google and wonders “if curated search results are the answer to the ongoing debate over information quality.” The post also generated more than 100 comments! Check it out.

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  • http://twitter.com/eileenobrien Eileen

    Just saw that Wendy Blackburn wrote on this topic http://bit.ly/d7cEJv AND Roska: http://bit.ly/dpf1lY. Clearly I’m behind on my blog reading!

  • David Oranges

    Since when is it OK to leave out the word “for” in saying you’re searching for something? Are you trying to be hip and cool?

    “Google to be like Switzerland”?

    - What, a free market economy with a historical dominance of watch making and producing chocolate?

    Yes I know the answer, but this cliche made me cringe. I couldn’t get past it.

    • http://twitter.com/eileenobrien Eileen

      Hi “David Oranges,”

      Thanks for the comment and the laugh. I prefer to think of Switzerland as a place where the Von Trapp family escaped from a really bad jam.


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  • http://www.healthcentral.com/sohealth/?author=15 @SearchDan

    I understand that the pharmaceutical space is particularly challenging for Google – they have to stay ahead in a constant struggle against a tide of highly optimized drug spam. Search on any popular medication, and you’ll probably find spammy “BUY ___ without a Prescription!” links before you even hit the second page of results.

    But it just seems lazy for Google to give up and say that their algorithm can’t find the most relevant information on a drug, and that it’s better to use the same stock answer over and over again. Inevitably, they’ll end up serving static content for drug and condition searches even when it becomes outdated, which tends to happen pretty rapidly in the health space.

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  • http://GodwinPlumbing.com Juliette Cowall

    How exactly do we know this is an editorial judgment? Does anyone really know Google’s algorithms? What if the links and image descriptions and citations and everything else on those sites are so head-and-shoulders above any other sources that they wouldn’t come up in an organic search anyway? What if Google put together a specific algorithm that take into account the ranking of health sites that link to, say, a doctor’s name and the value of sites that cite or link to him, and the rankings of the publications he’s cited in, and whether he’s an alumnus of an accredited college, and whether his name does not show up on sites that list doctors with litigation pending, and all kinds of other criteria? What if those results are based on value? What if, over time, those listings change based on changing value of each site? Or am I giving Google too much credit?

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