Friday, June 17, 2011

Does Google give the wrong information on health care decisions?

Clearly using the internet to research any topic is valuable.  

Whether it's a new book you're thinking about buying on Amazon, researching the latest and greatest high definition television, or finding the value of your used car, the internet is a wealth of information.  

We all know that websites track our activity, constantly downloading cookies that both help and hinder our web experience.  They allow us to instantly be put into our "Recommendations" page on, but they also may contribute to mining our website activity and delivering us pop up ads.

But the latest use of complicated algorithms by search engines like Google resembles the ultimate over the shoulder look from big brother.  

In an effort to better put you in touch with the information you are searching, search engines have started to place context "relevant" items high in the search list.  That is, the search engine tracks both your searches and websites visited and then computes what search results would be the most relevant -- just for you.

This means that even though we might search the same topic, we might both be given a different set of results.

Now most of the time this is good.  

If you are hungry for catfish, searching for this crusty fried fatty protein would probably lead to restaurants that are near your home.  If you are a health fanatic (read: you aren't familiar with the word "fried") then you might find links to recipes for grilled fish.

Now all of this sounds really helpful. 

But instead of the results providing a broad spectrum of information, they are actually providing information that is more focused -- just for you.

Imagine for a moment that you are somewhat of a conspiracy theorist.  If you search the word set "birth certificate," you might find yourself immersed in the world of the Birther's and President Obama's long guarded secret certificate.  You could have very well been really searching for the office of your local county clerk where you could download a copy of your own vital record.

These types of results are especially concerning in health care.

Now think about this scenario:  you are somewhat of a natural and alternative medicine follower.  You just returned from visiting your primary care doctor and she gives you your mammogram results.  It looks like you might have breast cancer.

You do what most patient's do:  you search breast cancer on Google.  

Given your past search patterns on health foods, alternative medicine, herbal products, and acupuncture, an article on "prune juice as a cure for breast cancer" pops up.  Further search of this bizarre topical combination begins to reinforce your findings:  there might be a link for a cure between this fruit juice and a breast malignancy.

So instead of providing a comprehensive analysis of breast cancer treatments, the algorithms have begun to reinforce your preconceived (pre-searched) thoughts on alternative medicine.

Now this isn't an attack on alternative medicine, rather it's meant to demonstrate how the internet can focus one's mind on a solution quickly rather than providing all of the necessary information to make the best decision.  

And the scary part?  There is very little you can do about it.

These algorithms are proprietary and aren't really subject to easy manipulation.  They are meant to reflect who you are and what you generally search for;  and they do a very good job.

Yes, you can log off and then log on with another name, try a different browser, search for other types of topics for awhile, or even replace the computer, but because many use the local ip address as the pointer for determining which results to deliver, this would all be done in vain.

Probably the best advice is to cognitively realize that this is happening when you perform a search.  So don't stop with the first articles or links that are returned.

Dig deeper and go off the search engine directed path a little.  Force Google to go deeper into other topics by continuing to search different but similar keywords.  

And know that ultimately you are in charge of your search experience.  Don't believe everything you see or hear;  have a healthy respect that it's good to challenge the information you are given.

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