Beware the Snake Oil Salesman

He’s alive and well on the Internet and he’s betting your Information Literacy skills aren’t as good as you think they are!

When you’ve got a question about something, where’s the first place you go on the Internet looking for answers? If you’re like most people, you head to Google. But is that always the right tool? Suppose you want some basic medical information because you’ve been having frequent headaches lately. So you do a search for “frequent headaches” and get 3,740,000 results. Wow! How do you know which ones are the best sources? You might think that the first sites in the list would be the best. But you’d be wrong.

No one knows exactly how Google’s search algorithm ranks sites, but it isn’t by checking for accuracy or authoritative sources. There are multiple web sites that offer advice on gaming the system to get your site to come up higher in Google’s search. One known factor is the number of links to your site from other sites. That has spawned an explosion of Link Farms whose sole purpose is to fool the search engines.

Let’s go back to our search for frequent headache information. A colored box at the top of the page catches my attention. But wait, in fine print in the far corner is the word Ad. This site paid Google to have their link at the top of this page. Let’s work our way down the list. The first regular link is WebMD, not a bad site, but you do need to beware the ads throughout this site. It is quite easy to click on what looks like a promising link only to end up on a commercial site that is not part of WebMD and therefore not reviewed by WebMD staff. You also need to be aware that WebMD is a for profit corporation, not a government agency or non-profit organization.

The next several links aren’t clear about the medical qualifications of the writers. In fact, some of then don’t even have an “About” page. (Information Literacy Hint #1: Always check the About page of a website to see the credentials of authors.) They all have ads scattered across the page, sometimes in the middle of the text of the article. One shows the author is a doctor, but closer examination reveals the article was written in 2002. That’s a long time ago for medical information!

So where should you go for reliable medical information? How can you be sure the sites you find are accurate and authoritative? One choice is to start on a site where someone else has already evaluated the quality of the sites, somewhere like the Internet Public Library or ipl2. The ipl2 is maintained by librarians and library school students. If you can’t find the information you need, there is an ask an ipl2 librarian service. The first result I got when I searched for information on frequent headaches here was an ipl pathfinder or guide to multiple excellent sources, including the National Institutes of Health, the Mayo Clinic and the American Council for Headache Education. Not one of these sites showed up in my original Google search, though I admit to giving up after wading through 5 pages of results.

There is yet another excellent option for finding healthcare information – your public library. Odds are you don’t even have to visit the library itself. Most libraries offer remote access to lots of wonderful databases using just your library card number. My local library, The Central Rappahannock Regional Library, offers its patrons access to the Health and Wellness Resource Center which includes articles from health and fitness magazines, scholarly medical journals and even medical encyclopedias and a dictionary, all with NO ADS. As with most libraries, they offer an Ask a Librarian service online. And, believe it or not, if you visit the library, a librarian can help you find the information you need. Sometimes the best information is still found in good, old-fashioned books, and a librarian is a trained information professional whose job is to help you get the information you need and want.

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About booksnquilts

I'm the Children's Services Coordinator for the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Central Virginia.
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