In 2012, Google introduced a feature to their search engine they call Knowledge Graph. The company has compiled millions of facts into a database, and offers them up on the right-hand side of search engine result pages in a handy box. The graph is also the source of many of the answers you get in the voice response versions of Google, such as in Google’s smartphone apps.
The answers come from many sources including the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia. At the time this was launched, I wrote how skeptic efforts editing Wikipedia were paying off in a new way, exposing the public to skeptics and skeptical topics in these knowledge graph boxes.
On February 10 Google announced an enhancement to this product, adding a whole new class of data – answers to medical questions. As they explained in their introductory blog post:
We worked with a team of medical doctors (led by our own Dr. Kapil Parakh, M.D., MPH, Ph.D.) to carefully compile, curate, and review this information. All of the gathered facts represent real-life clinical knowledge from these doctors and high-quality medical sources across the web, and the information has been checked by medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.
This has a great potential to combat the infamous “Dr. Google” syndrome. This is a popular term for the tendency of incorrect or even pseudoscientific information, by virtue of its prominence in the search engine, misleading the public. Who can forget the 2007 sound byte from the Oprah Winfrey Show, when Jenny McCarthy stated, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from“? How many others are out there learning incorrect info from bogus websites pushed up into the Google results via SEO techniques?
Many different studies have shown that search engine users rarely move beyond the first page of results. Thus the placement of these knowledge graph results prominently on the first page of results might have a good effect. It remains to be seen whether these knowledge graph boxes will help draw attention from potentially dangerous organic search results.
You can recognize the new additions because they typically appear in boxes offering separate tabs on general info, symptoms and treatments. They also always contain advice to consult a medical doctor for advice. (See diagram).
I searched several medical topics and was pleased that I could not find any in which alternative medicine had been included. For instance, the lower back pain topic shown here does not offer acupuncture or chiropractic as an option. This is a good sign, but skeptics should keep an eye on this feature. I’m sure the alternative medicine community will eventually pressure Google to include their nonsense.
If you do notice spurious alternative medical information appearing in one of these results, you can click the word Feedback at lower right. The box will highlight and show a prompt to click on the error. You can then select which piece of information is incorrect – you will be prompted to explain why you think it is wrong.
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