BMJ: Google ads can have misleading medical info

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Google needs better control of its advertisements and suggested links to avoid web pages that contain conflicting medical claims, warn doctors in an article published online in the British Medical Journal ( BMJ).

Marco Masoni and colleagues at the University of Florence in Italy suggest that, as the internet is not well policed and regulated, it is up to members of the medical community to be vigilant and to suggest improvements.

They recently used Google Italia to search on the keyword "aloe" and found sponsored links to websites recommending aloe arborescens for the prevention and treatment of cancer and offering it for sale.

AdWords is "Google's flagship advertising product" and was its "main source of revenue in 2007," according to the authors. Through it, users can create advertisements, choose their own key words, and decide which Google queries their advertisements should match. Google decides on placement on its pages of search results: which advertisements to show and in what order.

But Google's automated matching to search terms sometimes places inappropriate advertisements.

For example, Google Guide (which is neither affiliated with nor endorsed by Google), said: "In September of 2003, adjacent to a New York Post article about a gruesome murder in which the victim's body parts were stashed in a suitcase, Google listed an ad for suitcases. Since that incident, Google has improved its filters and automatically pulls ads from pages with disturbing content."

But the authors argued that Google filters must be improved further.

"Showing an advertisement that links aloe and cancer in response to a query with only the single keyword 'aloe' is inappropriate. Worse yet is when the website linked to has false medical claims," wrote Masoni and colleagues. "If improving the filter is too complex, it would be better simply not to display sponsored links in results of searches on medical terms or products."

But the authors warned of another problem--the short list of "related searches." Such suggested alternative search terms, which don't appear on every search in Google, are automatically generated by an algorithm determining terms related to the search that may be useful to refine the query.

In their case, the related link connected them to a website that contained statements such as: "Cancer can be cured! Padre Romano Zago's cure, Aloe Arborescens, cured many people's cancer!" The site has further pages full of statements and "proofs" aiming to show that Aloe arborescens can cure many types of cancer, the authors wrote.

Google has often said that it wishes to enter the healthcare arena in many ways, the authors noted.

"We think that a necessary first step for Google is to improve its filters and algorithms so as to prevent possible harm to its users," they stated.