Evaluating the Quality of Online Information

By OBOS Navigating the Health Care System Contributors | October 1, 2011
Last Revised on Jun 3, 2014

While the amount of material available on the Internet is vast, the quality of the information varies greatly. Some sites push dubious medicine, both conventional and alternative; some are concerned only with selling you their products; and some sites are biased by the drug companies, professional societies, and other advertisers who support them. Below are some questions to ask to help evaluate the quality of online health information:

Who is responsible for the content on the site?

Any good site should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its content. However, it can be difficult to find this information. For clues, look at the site’s URL (which is usually listed in a box labeled “location” near the top part of your screen): the name or initials of the organization are often part of the URL, as is a 2- or 3-letter “root domain” designation that tells you the nature of the organization. Some common designations are .edu, which stands for educational institution, .org for nonprofit organization, .gov for government agency, .com for commercial company, .net for network, .ca for Canada, and .uk for Great Britain. For example, by looking at the URL http://www.cdc.gov, you can figure out that you are at a site created by a government agency (gov) whose initials are probably cdc (they are: the Centers for Disease Control). 

For additional clues, look for a link on the site that says “Who We Are” or “About Us.” This can help you determine whether the information is created by a health care provider, a person dealing with a medical condition, or an insurance company, for example, so you can better judge the content. If there is no information available about who owns the site or develops the content, be wary.

Who/what pays for the site?

It is important to consider how sources of funding for a site or its content provider may affect the content. Does the site sell advertising? Does it sell products or services? Is it sponsored by a drug company? Is it funded through industry grants or donations? (Nonprofit organizations are often funded this way.) The source of funding can affect what content is presented, and how. For example, drug-company-sponsored information tends to downgrade or ignore nonmedical or nonpharmacological approaches (which may be more effective) and is slow to present innovative alternatives or preventive treatments. Try to figure out if the author(s) and site owner(s) have a financial interest in, or anything else to gain from, proposing one particular point of view over another.

Is there research to support the information on the site?

Many health-oriented websites do not provide references to support the statements made. This may be because the site is written by a patient speaking from personal experience, because a statement is generally accepted to be true, or for other, less trustworthy reasons. The presence of references to medical and scientific literature can be a positive aspect of a site, as it allows readers to track down the source material and verify the author’s statements. However, a list of scientific sources does not mean a site is automatically trustworthy. For example, people with a political agenda — such as abortion rights opponents – may present references that, upon closer inspection, do not actually support the claims being made.

When was the material written or compiled?

It is important to know when the content was written or last updated. It is not always possible to determine this, and copyright dates are not a reliable measure. Medical research can easily become outdated; what may have been accepted in the recent past (such as routine hormone replacement therapy for postmenopausal women) may not be the current standard of medical care.

Does the site allow anyone to alter or update content?

Sites like Wikipedia allow anyone with Internet access to edit, revise, or update content according to voluntary community standards. Based on the success and popularity of Wikipedia, several organizations and companies have begun to offer health-related wiki tools. While these resources can sometimes provide balanced and up-to-date content, remember that people who offer edits and revisions may be those most motivated to share their insights because of either very positive or very negative experiences. Company representatives or paid consultants may also alter content and may not be identifiable.

Does the information sound too good to be true?

Be wary of cures for incurable diseases or treatments that seem too good to be true. Question sites that credit themselves as the sole source of information on a topic as well as sites that disparage other sources of knowledge. Also be aware that terms like bioidentical, herbal, or natural do not have regulated meanings and do not guarantee either safety or good outcomes.

Does the site ask you for personal information?

If so, read its privacy statement to find out if your information will be shared by others without your permission. When choosing to participate in discussion forums or other online communities where you share personal information, think about whether there are any potential consequences of the information being publicly available (such as job discrimination or insurance claim denials).

What About Websites Run by Patients?

Sometimes, someone who has learned a lot about her or his own health condition or worked hard to find the most up-to-date research about treatment options will pay it forward by making this information more easily available to others. These sites, usually free of financial conflicts of interest, can sometimes provide excellent information from a consumer perspective — a perspective too often missing from other sources of information.

However, the content developers may not be skilled at understanding medical information and research literature or keeping the site updated. And they may not have exactly the same medical condition or symptoms as you, or the same values, preferences, and priorities that you bring to your health care decisions.

Also, beware of sites or social media pages that look as if they are from individual patients but are actually slick advertising campaigns created by corporate interests such as pharmaceutical companies or hospitals. In some cases, the patient is fabricated altogether, but pharmaceutical and device companies may also recruit real patients to tell their stories online, selecting those patients who have treatment success stories and who didn’t experience or are willing to downplay negative side effects.

Even on sites that purport to be patients’ personal web pages, look for an About link or any ads or company logos, clues that the content is sponsored and potentially biased. Federal regulations now require bloggers to disclose when they receive advertising revenue, free product samples, or anything else of value, so also look for disclosure statements.

Finally, you should be aware that your online privacy could be violated by individuals who run websites or by individuals with access to your computer. For example, when you comment on a blog, the blog’s administrators may be able to detect where you are located or where you work (if you post your comment using a computer at work) by looking at the IP address attached to your comment. It may also be possible for someone in your household to monitor your Internet activity using certain tools and techniques.