The internet is a major source of information about health, but just because the information is published online doesn’t mean that it’s reliable. Sometimes a website that looks trustworthy is based on opinions rather than facts, and sometimes the information is just plain wrong. With so much information out there, how do you decide what to believe?
Question the source of the information
Here are some questions to help you decide if the information is biased:
- Who created the information? Are they trying to promote a product, idea, or agenda?
- Is there valid contact and “About Us” information on the website?
- Is there advertising presented along with the information?
- Is a variety of information presented, or just one point of view?
- Is the information from a medical or health-related organization? If not, what is the author’s or organization’s motivation for publishing health information?
Evaluate the reliability of the information
Other things to consider:
- Is it easy to find out who created the information? The author and/or organization should be clearly identified, and contact information should be available. Is the site professionally managed and reviewed by experts in the field?
- Is the information clearly organized? Do the links work?
- Is the information up-to-date? Look for the date of the most recent publication. Health information and treatments change all the time, so old information may no longer be accurate.
- Who is the information created for? Content should be age-appropriate. For example, if intended for teens, it should be teen-friendly and written at an appropriate reading level.
- Does the site have sponsors? All sponsorship, advertising, or commercial interests should be clearly stated.
- Does the site credit sources? Statements such as “from my own experience” reflect the opinion of an individual rather than scientific fact.
Check links and more links. Not only do you want to be sure that the links work, it’s very important to know where the links go. Are there links to the sources of information that are cited?
Don’t be fooled by website claims. Be alert to websites that credit themselves as the only source of the information or if the site posts negative comments about other sources of information.
Use common sense. If the information appears unprofessional, it probably is. Compare the information you find on a website with information from other trustworthy sites.
Check out websites. Does the URL include the name of a respected health organization (like plannedparenthood.org), or a government site (like cdc.gov), both of which tend to be more reliable? Or, is the website a company or business (like thinkgeek.com), or a news site (like buzzfeed.com), which tend to be less reliable or accurate?
Check more than one website. Visit multiple websites in order to compare information from different authors and health organizations. If several different reliable websites are saying the same thing, then there is a good chance that it is accurate information.
Wikipedia shouldn’t be your first choice. Wikipedia will most likely appear on the first page of search results, and while it is good for a quick review and to find links to other sources, do not rely on it as a primary source of health information.
There is more than Google. Instead of turning to Google to search for your health concerns, you should start by searching MedlinePlus, which is a health website offered by the National Library of Medicine (the world’s largest medical library). MedlinePlus is like a search engine that only searches through accurate health information. All of the results have been reviewed to make sure that only up-to-date, reliable websites are included.
When in doubt: ask. If you are ever unsure as to whether a website is reliable or not, you can approach a librarian at a public library, who will guide you through the website evaluation process.