Vertical Search Engines in a Healthy Space

Have you ever tried to search for medical information on the major search engines, only to come away disappointed by your results? You’re not alone. In this article, the second of two parts, we take a look at the vertical search engines focused on health-related information that are trying to fill this need.

In the previous article, we took a look at the rising need for search engines to help those who are looking for health-related information. We noted the increasing number of vertical search engines attempting to fill this need, and then examined how the major search engines were trying to help searchers with their own versions of health-focused search engines (i.e. Yahoo Health, MSN Health & Fitness). We gave Google, Yahoo Health, and MSN Health & Fitness three queries with different levels of difficulty to see how well they could sort out the needs of someone searching for medical information.

These engines performed well for more general queries on which there was a great deal of information, and offered various options for narrowing the search. Even a query that might be considered intermediate did not seem too difficult for them. But a query involving a medical abbreviation proved to be a little more challenging, especially for Google and MSN Health & Fitness (though to the latter’s credit, it was able to suggest related searches that led to the proper results). For most but not all searches, the search engines included sponsored listings at the top, before the organic results – and these ads weren’t always relevant.

Specialized search engines claim that they can deliver a better, more relevant performance. Some say that they carefully weed out their results to avoid anything smelling of spam or scams. (Note: most of my searches on the major engines didn’t turn up scams, but then again I wasn’t searching on terms that should have been popular among medical scammers). Some also sort their results into categories that are supposed to be more meaningful for searchers, or offer filters to make the results more personally relevant — to account for the searcher’s gender or family history for example, rather than returning categories that apply only to the disease itself.

How well do they deliver on these promises? To find out, I decided to run the same three searches on Kosmix, Healthline, and Healia that I ran on the major search engines: “breast cancer,” “BRCA testing,” and “ACL.” Keep reading to see what I found.     

As I noted in the previous article, I’ve reviewed Kosmix before. The search engine (still in beta) has expanded its list of vertical search engines beyond what I remembered from my last visit, adding at least two more categories (video games and autos). It will be interesting to see how much more this develops, but not to the point for today’s task.

For breast cancer, Kosmix returned more than 600,000 results divided into particular categories: news, basic information, support groups and tools, natural remedies, written for medical professionals, and specific patients. Right at the top, the first result links to a definition of breast cancer – and it’s not from Wikipedia, it’s from a company called MedicineNet.com. When you scroll down the results, you see that they’re grouped by the particular categories, and each category has subcategories listed next to it on the left.

The top results for each main category are given to you by default, but next to “basic information” (for example) you can click on subcategories for definition, causes, symptoms, and more to reorder your results. Clicking on one of these subcategories made the section go blank, and its reappearance sometimes took so long that I thought the search engine hadn’t found anything in that area. Finally, in the column on the right, which most of the other search engines reserved for sponsored results, were highly relevant results which may or may not have been sponsored: breast cancer organizations, local hospitals (with a hospital finder that worked off of zip code), and – perhaps inevitably – ads by Google.

BRCA testing returned fewer results, of course – about 1,632, an amount a truly determined woman could scroll through. Like the previous set, these were divided into news, basic information, support groups and tools, natural remedies, written for medical professionals, and specific patients. Natural remedies…for a medical test? Here again the slowness of the engine proved a bit maddening, and when the links did come up, I couldn’t tell from the short extracts included with the links why these should be placed in the natural remedies category rather than somewhere else.

For ACL, Kosmix delivered the kind of relevant results you’d expect from a specialized search engine – more than 34,000, in fact. There is one point worth noting about many of Kosmix’s results though: they list a small section of sponsored links in with the organic results. They’re not at the top; they’re listed in a separate category called “Products and Services” and they’re clearly differentiated from the rest of the results by having a different color background. Google has experimented with offering sponsored listings in with the regular results in a similar manner; it did not go over well. Kosmix might have more success with it simply because it already separates its results into separate categories that are visually distinguished as you scroll down.

I made Healthline.com my next stop. As with Yahoo and MSN, it was a portal-like site, but heavier on text and lighter on images. The site offers 200 health “channels” (showing only the top ones on the home page, but offering a link that displays them all in alphabetical order from ADD/ADHD to Yeast infections). Inevitably, there was one for breast cancer. This page had relevant banner ads (no surprise there). In a column on the left you could choose from various related topics.

The large center column contains real content, starting you off with basic information: definition, symptoms, causes, risk factors, and more. Scroll down and you get links to more articles. Most of these links have a hyperlink next to them labeled “doctor-reviewed information;” click on that link and you receive a pop-up explaining that such articles are regularly reviewed by medical doctors to ensure their accuracy. That’s a very nice feature.

In the main search box on Healthline’s home page, you can choose to search either the web or news. A news search on breast cancer returned only three results (and two sponsored links above them, one of which is not even relevant to breast cancer). To the right of the results were ads by Google. A web search on Healthline for breast cancer returned results from both Healthline’s channel and the general web, clearly separated. A number of articles from the web include “trust marks” which you can click on for more information about what they are. And you could always tell where your information was coming from. Also, to assist your searching, at the top of the search results Healthline included a banner that gave you options for broadening or narrowing your search, and checking related topics.

So how did Healthline do for BRCA testing? It only returned 29 web results, but many of these were remarkably specific. The first one linked to an article that talked about testing for people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry (very on-topic, because the BRCA gene mutations are strongly linked to those with that ancestry). Strangely, Healthline seemed to fixate more on the “testing” part of my query than I would have expected; the tenth result concerned HIV testing, not at all relevant to my topic. And at the top, before the two sponsored links, Healthline asked me if I meant broca testing – that’s good in some cases, of course, but it’s not what I meant. Searching for news results was more encouraging – seven links, all relevant, ranging from six hours to nine days old.

Finally, I did a search for ACL. At the top, I got two options for broadening my search; then, after two ads for Google, the organic results included 13 from Healthline and more than 250 from the web. News results were very recent and, not surprisingly, sports-related. All ads were relevant.

I was actually pretty eager to check out Healia, because I’d heard a lot about its approach. It’s the only site that lets searchers use multiple filters. When you first approach it, though, the site is not a portal; its interface is as clean as Google’s. Again, I searched on breast cancer. A rectangle at the top of the results linked to similar and more specific searches: “mammary neoplasms,” “bilateral breast cancer,” “breast carcinoma,” and “ductal breast carcinoma.” Yes, I saw these words on other sites, but not as recommended alternative searches.

To the left are Healia’s filters, which are a series of check boxes. I checked results for/about professionals and females, and results that have/are advanced reading, privacy policy, and have interactive tools. The results list changed dynamically with every click. With that many filters, though, I only got one result, plus a warning from Healia that using too many filters could yield some unexpected results. Very well; I backed off of my last two choices and still saw a healthy set of hyperlinks. It was nice to see such specific filtering options.

In addition to those filters, there were tabs at the top of the results that I could click, relating to prevention, causes/risks, symptoms, diagnosis/tests, and treatment. Strangely, clicking on these tabs did not change the order of my results as much as I expected it would. I was pleased to see that I could clear all the filters with one click of my mouse. I also noticed that, below the links returned for each result, you could see the list of “attributes” Healia had assigned each item (which corresponded to the filters).

Okay, so much for breast cancer; how did Healia do for BRCA testing? Well, it asked me if I meant “drug testing.” But it also returned more than 2,000 results for my query. Clicking “professionals” took it down to 86 results, while unchecking that box and clicking on “basic reading” gave me 147 results. I couldn’t filter for the particular heritage I wanted to, but just as with any search engine I could add the appropriate word. Healia kept my “basic reading” filter (I hadn’t unchecked it) and gave me 36 results that looked fairly relevant.

Finally, I expected Healia to do very well with ACL. I cleared my filters first this time. It gave me more than 6,000 results, and an “expanded term” which spelled out the abbreviation (and yielded less than half the original results when clicked on; I guess doctors like talking in abbreviations as much as geeks do). I filtered for teens because I thought I might get something about ACL injuries in high school sports. I only got two results. Of these, I ended up having to search the first site for ACL because there was nothing about it on the first page (it did offer 70 results though). The second link probably would have been highly relevant, as it came from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons – but clicking on it returned an error page (and a search on the site for ACL teens didn’t return any results).  

So do these specialized search engines offer better or more relevant information than the more general ones? Well, I have to admit to a greater confidence when searching with them that the information I turned up would be both relevant and medically accurate, especially with Healthline and Healia, despite the way Healia let me down on the last search. For something on which there is as much information available as breast cancer, the general search engines may be good enough for a starting point. If you’re looking for more specialized information, though, you may want to use one of these engines.

Both the major search engines and the specialized search engines proved at least somewhat vulnerable to linking to pages that no longer exist – and while the specialized search engines offer fewer, more relevant results, that also makes them vulnerable when some of those links don’t work (if a few of Yahoo’s links don’t work, at least you have plenty more form which to choose). Still, it is this increased level of relevance on relatively obscure topics that will give at least certain vertical search engines a fighting chance to compete with the Goliath that is Google.

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