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July 17, 2002

Characteristics of Health-Related Web Sites Identified by Common Internet Portals

Author Affiliations

Stephen J.LurieMD, PhD, Senior EditorIndividualAuthor

JAMA. 2002;288(3):316-317. doi:10.1001/jama.288.3.311

To the Editor: Consumers who search for online health information are most likely to access the first few sites listed by a search engine.1,2 The content of such sites, however, has not been well described.

We used the 5 most popular portals in October 2001 (Yahoo, America Online, Microsoft Network, Lycos, and Go)3 to search for 24 terms related to heart disease, cancer, and weight loss (8 terms per health topic) between October 1 and November 14, 2001. We then analyzed the content of the first 10 sites listed by each of the 5 portals for each of the 24 terms, yielding 1200 Web sites. Sites were coded as having content based either on scientific or on unproven claims. The former group were generally sponsored by government agencies, licensed health care facilities, pharmaceutical companies operating within with federal mandates, and clearing houses such as WebMD. The latter sites typically featured alternative medicine practices or unregulated supplements. The existence of scientific support for site recommendations or claims, when uncertain, was checked against information from Web sites of the National Institutes for Health; science-based sites were not evaluated in terms of currency or completeness of recommendations. We also recorded whether products or services could be purchased from the Web site, and whether the site was sponsored by a government agency. The 2 coders double-coded the first 12.5% of the sites, as well as an additional 12.5% midway through the study; all κ values were greater than 0.7. Differences between portal types were analyzed with repeated-measures analysis of variance with search term as the unit of analysis, and health topic as a between-unit factor with search term within topic used as the error term.

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