Google and Russian search engine Yandex, are not reliable sources for health related information. Many times, the previews of search results that contain small text snippets are incomplete or inaccurate. Researchers from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany and the Ural Feder University in Russia found that information on home remedies and other treatments can be problematic. Scientists are calling for more warnings regarding possible health hazards.
The German-Russian team started with a collection of 1.5 billion queries submitted by Yandex, Russia’s most popular search engine. The scientists used medical terms from ICD-10 (the International Classification of Diseases) and Wikidata to identify 1.2 million queries that contained symptoms, diseases, and other treatment options. People searched for more than 4,400 diseases and symptoms, as well as 1,000 home remedies and medicinal plants. “Usually people were looking for information about private, everyday matters like pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.” Alexander Bondarenko, who is a computer scientist who was part of the MLU team, says that treatments for cellulite and acne were more popular than those for cancer. The majority of queries that were submitted as questions fell under one of two categories. Either people wanted to find out if a remedy is effective in treating a particular disease or they needed specific instructions about how to use it. Dr Pavel Braslavski is a senior researcher at the Ural Federal University and a lecturer.
The team then checked Yandex’s and Google’s responses to the 30 most commonly asked questions. Analyzing the ten first result snippets for each query was possible. Search engines display snippets as previews of search results. The team reviewed the snippets’ accuracy and if they included warnings about potential health risks. The team’s doctor performed a search on the medical databases “Cochrane”, “PubMed” or “BioMed Explorer” to find all possible diseases and their proposed treatments.
Yandex falsely claimed that 44% of the time a remedy works against a particular disease. However, there is no scientific evidence supporting this claim. Google found this in around a third of cases. The team also found warnings about toxic substances in just 13 (Yandex), and 10% (Google) cases. Bondarenko says that the information in the snippets tends confirm existing biases or misbeliefs, and far too few provide adequate warnings about potential health risks. This is especially problematic because previous studies have shown that people believe certain remedies have healing powers, even though there is little scientific evidence to support this belief. Researchers argue that search engine results related to medical questions should include clearer warnings about potential health risks.