One decade later, 80 percent of Web users looking for health info still start with a search engine

Internet users hunting for health information have more options than ever before, but the good ol’ search engine remains their first stop.
According to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 8 in 10 Internet users say that their last health-related search began at a search engine, such as Google (s GOOG), Bing (s MSFT) or Yahoo (s YHOO) – a figure that has not changed since Pew last asked that question in 2000.  About 13 percent say that they started at a health-specific site like WebMD, 2 percent say they began at a general site like Wikipedia and 1 percent said they started at a social network like Facebook (s FB).
The findings are especially interesting given all the health content websites and startups that have launched in the last 13 years that are trying to position themselves as go-to online health destinations for consumers. Those companies include startups like Symcat and Meddik, which provide health-specific search engines that directly take aim at “Dr. Google,” as well as content sites like Everyday Health and WebMD.
“Health websites have not gained mind share among consumers over the last decade,” said Susannah Fox, Pew’s associate director of digital strategy.
Given internet users’ familiarity with search engines, the statistic makes sense. But the stakes for health searches are arguably higher than for most other searches, and Google’s ability to return reliable information is up for debate. The study has implications for how doctors consider online health searches in talking to patients and how health content companies optimize and position themselves online.
You can see more of Pew’s report on its site, but here are a few more key findings:

  • Almost a third at 35 percent of U.S. adults, have gone online to figure out a medical condition. Of those, half went on to see a medical professional.
  • Seventy percent of U.S. adults said that the last time they had a serious health issue they got information, care or support from a doctor or health professional.
  • Half of health information searches are conducted on behalf of someone else.
  • One in four people seeking health information have hit a paywall.