When I was little my parents had a big medical encyclopaedia with some quite comprehensive and graphic line drawings, which must have made quite an impression on me as I can still visualise some of them today.

It had this section where it was indexed by symptom, so, whatever aches and pains you had you could look them up and find out what was likely to be causing them and what you should do as a result.  It was quite an old-fashioned tome and I do recall fresh air and exercise being mandated as a cure or preventative or most things, not a bad idea all told and unlikely to do any harm.  Mostly though it told you to ‘seek medical attention’ for pretty much every symptom, although some of the more minor ones it was OK to first wait for 3 days before bothering the professionals, to see if it cleared up on its own.

Nowadays though, the internet is a hypochondriac’s dream come true and worst nightmare rolled in to one.  Just type your symptoms in to Google and see what you get… start with something suitably innocuous and vague like ‘headache’, after all if you haven’t got one now you probably will have after checking through these results.

The trouble with searching medical information online is the lack of filtering on the results.  Because of the way Google and other search engines index information, the position of content in the news feed often bears little or no relation to the authority or credibility of the information itself, and often sales and promotional pages are those which may most attention to the business of search engine optimisation and careful grooming of their content for most prominent search results.

A lot of the vaguer and more troublesome health problems that many people deal with are of course not always easily diagnosed and treated by straightforward means, and the internet has opened the way for anybody anywhere in the world to create and publish and promote anything they like.  People in pain are vulnerable people, and sometimes they are desperate people.

What the democratisation of online publication has done is enable minority and alternative approaches to myriad health problems to get their theories, content and products out into the world – but it has also enabled a staggering proliferation of charlatans purveying the widest range of snake oil and utter rubbish, preying on the desperation of people suffering from chronic untreatable conditions.  Just search for any terms like insomnia, psoriasis, chronic fatigue, allergies, PCOS, or IBS, and don’t even get started on the millions and millions of results you will get if you enter anything related to weight or diet.

Many of these ‘information products’ are sold on an affiliate basis by people who receive very generous commissions for promoting and selling them – as they are eBooks there is no cost to distribution and some people can make a great deal of money in this way.

miracle cure

Miracle Medicine – The Internet Cure

The big problem is the total lack of standards and benchmarking in the information on offer. Literally anyone can write an eBook calling itself ‘The Blueberry Miracle Cure for IBS’ and start marketing it online, taking money from vulnerable people and quite possibly totally misadvising them about treatment in a way that could be dangerous and counterproductive.  Usually there are plenty of links to back-end sales of spurious supplements and treatments as well, particularly if the cost of the information is low

Often too these affiliate sellers – who might well make a living promoting a diverse range of different products in different categories, and I am not knocking their industry per se as it can be quite legitimate – are experts when it comes to search engines.

They scour search volumes for different terms and deliberately create content that will correspond with what people are searching for, and often when it comes to this kind of medical information products they are directly competing against one another for volume.

So, let’s say there is an eBook and programme called ‘the Blueberry IBS Miracle Cure’ (there isn’t, I made it up).  This gets launched on Clickbank or a similar platform and affiliate marketers can choose to promote it, it sells for $9.99 and they get 50% commission for every sale – so they start searching the Google counts for all sorts of terms with this phrase in it, to see what people are looking for.

You know when you start typing in to Google and it starts to autocomplete for you?  That’s because it’s a term that lots of people are after.  And those are the keywords our savvy marketers are going to go for.  For example, in my fictitious example, the terms ‘blueberry IBS Miracle scam’ or ‘blueberry IBS miracle review’ are things the more sceptical patient might search first, before getting ready to fork over their ten bucks.

But the cynical affiliate might well have thought of this and carefully prepared balanced-looking reviews and reveals about the product, that appear to even-handedly scrutinise the arguments for and against… whilst miraculously coming down in favour of the promoted product at the end of the debate, complete with their referral link to purchase it right now

So you see, searching for medical help online can be fraught with problems.  Next week we will take a look at some more authoritative sources of information, but remember that nothing you will ever find online can replace the advice of a trained professional.

We will take a closer look next week at some places you can find better medical advice online

Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, April 11th 2014. ©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL

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