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May 2019 (Vol. 4 Issue 3)

Goodbye Dr Google

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Bryan Hubbard is Publisher and co-editor of WDDTY. He is a former Financial Times journalist. He is a Philosophy graduate of London University. Bryan is also the author of several books, including The Untrue Story of You and Secrets of the Drugs Industry.

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Goodbye Dr Google

March 1st 2019, 14:30
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What do you do when you first get diagnosed with an illness? Or perhaps when you're put on a new drug? Of course—you Google it! And why do you Google it when you've just seen your doctor and he or she has given you all the information you're supposed to need? Because perhaps you haven't really understood what was said to you, or, more likely, you want a second opinion.


Long ago, health and medicine sites—and especially alternative ones—overtook porn as the main reason people surfed the web, and search terms such as 'alternatives to (insert drug name here)' or 'alternatives to treat (insert disease name here)' have become some of the most commonly used. Welcome to the wonderful world of 'Dr Google.'


But all of this has suddenly changed. Last summer, Google made a significant rewrite to its algorithms—which apply almost instant weighting criteria to sites to determine where they appear in the search results—that focused on health and medical sites. In particular, it has targeted sites that "offer medical or health information that could impact your physical wellbeing."


Overnight, major sites such as Prevention and Dr Axe saw their traffic halve (and our site, www.wddty.com, has suffered as well). Their sites, which once may have featured on the first page of Google's search results, were suddenly plunged into the outer darkness of page 52, which only the most indefatigable and obdurate would reach.


Now it is extremely hard to find alternative health information without first wading through page after page of conventional medical sites that toe the party line and which, of course, endorse everything you've already heard from your doctor.


Suddenly, the main reason people are searching Google—to find alternative health advice—has been negated. And why? Because these sites, including ours, can harm "your physical wellbeing." Strange, we always thought we were having the exact opposite effect; well, that's 30 years of publishing well-researched health information down the drain.


As if being demoted to page 52 wasn't enough, the Publicise Groupe, a global communications firm that boasts drug and tobacco companies among its clients, has launched NewsGuard, which will be giving further ratings to sites, and especially those that dare to step outside the mainstream viewpoint.


It's not only Google that's clamping down on alternative medicine. Wikipedia—the ill-informed source for the uninterested—has deleted the page of Dr Malcolm Kendrick, one of our favorite mavericks, who questions the whole cholesterol theory of heart disease.


As is usual with the web, Dr Kendrick's critic is anonymous, and the ultimate arbiter of what you can read on the site, with no recourse or appeal possible. Kendrick isn't alone. Almost any unconventional view is heavily edited, misinterpreted or distorted, and amendments or even corrections of an error are overwritten within minutes.


As Dr Kendrick states in his blog: "To be frank, I am not entirely bothered if I no longer appear on Wikipedia, but I am increasingly annoyed that self-styled anonymous 'experts' can do this sort of thing without making it explicit why they are doing it, what their motives are, and if they have any disclosure of interest."


And there's the rub. What are their motives, and are they being paid to do it? Newspapers were once the 'voice of the people' and would hold industrial conglomerates to account, until they came to their senses with the help of vast advertising revenues from Big Pharma, Big Food and the tobacco industry. The same goes for radio and TV. It's increasingly hard to hear any alternative views on any of these media (and that especially goes for medicine and alternative therapies).


Now it seems the internet, which for years has been a truly democratic platform, is about to go the same way. Newspaper readerships have been in decline for years, partly because people are getting their news from the web but also because they are seeking out a multiverse of opinions and insights instead of the partial fare served up in print. Broadcast media is also fragmenting, with so many options—and voices—available across a stream of channels. There's no longer a dominant voice in mainstream media.


Google's algorithm change could see it going the same way. People will search out information about health alternatives via other platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, just as water seeks out other paths when its usual channels are blocked.


Don't be surprised to read there's been a drop-off in numbers using the search engine as many of us bid a sad goodbye to Dr Google.

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