Research from the University of Florida found stark differences in the quality of Web-based health information provided by search engines for different health issues.

The researchers discovered that searches related to the diagnosis and treatment of physical disease or injuries tend to yield higher-quality information than online searches for preventive health and social health information. The findings, based on queries of Google’s general search engine using more than 2,000 different health-related terms, appeared in the January 2014 issue of the journal Decision Support Systems.

The ranking of search engine results is important, because users tend to gravitate to results listed on the first page of a search, the researchers noted. Consumers may be more likely to find erroneous information if search engines rank lower-quality Web sites higher.

“Inaccurate or misleading results could lead people to ignore important symptoms and delay or even refuse recommended health care,” said Brent Kitchens, the study’s lead author. “Low-quality results could also lead people to seek unnecessary healthcare or implement unproven or potentially harmful at-home treatments.”

While the authors concluded the overall prevalence of high quality information is greater than that of low quality, the observed variance across health-related terms has important implications for consumers, policy makers, health information providers, and search engines. They recommend that existing online resources be examined for quality, and that healthcare and government organizations disseminate more high-quality information on topics where accurate information is lacking.

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