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When 2015 arrives in a few weeks millions of Americans will resolve to lose weight. What will be their first step in planning a strategy?

For many it will be sitting down at their computer and using a search engine to find the best weight loss programs. But it may surprise them to learn that to get the best advice, they need to go beyond the first few results that pop up.

A study appearing in the American Journal of Public Health shows that when using a common search engine like Google, the first page of results on the subject of diet and exercise is likely to display what the authors call “less reliable sites,” instead of more comprehensive one. Further, the results may contain sponsored content that makes unrealistic weight loss promises.

The research started from a personal observation. François Modave, chair of the Department of Computer Science at Jackson State University, led the study after hearing friends and family spout information they got from the Internet – information he knew to be hokum.

It didn't take long to put 2 and 2 together, since he knew the first links that appear in an Internet search, no matter what the topic, get nearly 90% of all clicks.

Putting it to the test

We decided to put Modave's observation to the test. Using Google, we entered “weight loss programs” in the search field.

The first three results were clearly marked as advertisements. The first non-sponsored link was for Dr. Oz's 2-Week Rapid Weight-Loss Plan Instructions, perhaps not the most authoritative source. Next was an article in US News about The Best Weight-Loss Diets. That was followed by Nutrisystem's corporate website.

The fourth entry was Healthy Weight Loss, a page on the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) website.

When we conducted the same search using Bing, there were no government health websites or independent medical authorities among the first page of search results.

Note to government webmasters

The researchers say federal agencies, academic institutions and medical organizations need to work a lot harder at search engine optimization (SEO) to get their links on top of searches.

Until that happens, Modave says it's up to consumers to be more critical when doing online searches for important health information.

In 2012, Modave and his team looked at 103 websites for questions about weight loss and rated the content based on available evidence-based guidelines for weight loss.

They found medical, government and university sites ranked highest, along with blogs. They also found a lot of dubious information. Most of the websites couldn't manage a score above 50%.

Additional research

And it's not just weight loss where an Internet search can present you with some less-than-objective information. As we reported earlier this year, researchers at the University of Florida (UF) found overall health information obtained online was not only lacking in quality, but could be hazardous.

The UF researchers made an interesting discovery. The broader the search topic, the more reliable the web sites in the search chain. For example, “ear infections” linked to reputable sources higher in the list than a highly specific topic, such as “vaccines for newborns.”

The takeaway? It's similar to what the Jackson State study concludes.

“Based on these results, health consumers and patients may feel assured that they can find some high-quality health information when using a search engine,” said study co-author Christopher A. Harle. “However, consumers and patients should know that searches for some health topics, such as nutrition or fitness, may result in more information that is potentially lower quality.”

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