Don’t search using diagnostic terms
When Googling your symptoms, it’s better to search using a basic keyword like ‘headache,’ rather than adding diagnostic terms such as ‘headache and brain tumour.’ Googling a worst-case scenario (or any specific scenario, for that matter) can bias your search results – and deliver you plenty of sites that may confirm unfounded fears (which will leave you in a panic) or may even downplay the seriousness of symptoms (causing you to delay seeing a doctor if you need to). “Start simply,” advises Dr Nina Shapiro. This way, your search results will deliver a full range of possibilities, allowing you to filter out results that don’t apply to you and zero in on the ones that might.
Don’t be too colloquial
Type in ‘abdominal pain’ as opposed to ‘tummy ache’ and you’re likelier to draw up medical sites – according to Google Search Help. And it’s the medical sites that will provide the more useful information.
Don’t be swayed by glitzy sites
You can’t judge a site by its appearance. A beautiful page layout and eye-catching videos and graphics are no indication that the information you’re about to read is accurate. Sites that end with .com and .net, even when completely health-focused, are generally commercial sites, supported by advertising. “That doesn’t mean these sites are necessarily wrong, but they can be biased,” says Dr Shapiro, who is the director of paediatric ear, nose, and throat medicine at Mattel’s Children Hospital UCLA. When looking at a commercial health site, see if it properly cites and links to original sources for its information, such as recent studies. Reputable health sites do.
Sites ending in .edu denote an academic institution and those ending in .gov are government sites, both are reputable sources. “In general, websites affiliated with academic, medical, or government centres tend to be purely informational and not so biased,” says Dr Shapiro. They may not be as good-looking as commercial sites, but there’s trusted information there. Sites ending in .org can be a mixed bag. While they’re often helmed by non-profit organisations, anyone can register a .org domain these days without submitting any documentation or proof that they are a non-profit. Some .orgs are backed by trustworthy professional medical academies. “People shouldn’t sell [them] short. They can get a lot out of them, even if it’s a professional site.” When in doubt, read through the ‘About’ page. (See below.)
Be wary of links appearing at the very top and bottom of Google search results pages; these are sponsored listings and they’re labelled as such, adds Dr Shapiro.