If you’re looking for weight-loss advice online, you might want to skip to the second or third page in your search results, new research has suggested. With one-third of Americans overweight, it’s no surprise that roughly 40 percent search online for weight loss and exercise tips, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Researchers found that the first page of results using a search engine like Google is likely to display sites that use unreliable sources instead of more comprehensive, high-quality sites, and often include sponsored content and commercial websites, which market weight loss products and make unrealistic promises.
Study author Francois Modave, chairman of the computer science department at Jackson State University in Mississippi, said in a statement: “Since the first links that appear on an Internet search, regardless of the topic, receive nearly 90 percent of all clicks, this steers consumers to substandard information.”
Unfortunately for those who are struggling to lose weight, it can not only result in wasted time and wasted money, it can also lead to ineffective weight loss or worse: weight gain or illness.
Modave also noted: “Federal agencies, academic institutions and medical organizations need to work a lot harder at search engine optimization to get their links on top of searches. Consumers need to be more critical when reading online. Ideally, they could read original studies from which many stories are written but, of course, that’s not realistic for most people.”
For this study, Modave and the research team asked volunteers who were interested in losing weight which search terms they would use to find information about weight loss online. The researchers also chose key phrases like “weight loss” and “lose weight” and let Google autocomplete the searches. In total they reportedly used 30 different search queries related to weight loss, and clicked on the first few websites from each search.
The researchers scored each site they landed on based on how closely it adhered to proven medical-based advice on nutrition, exercise and behavioral strategies. They found that medical sites, government sites, university sites and blogs ranked the highest, but less than one-fifth of all the websites scored higher than 50 percent, which means that accurate information was found on only 50 percent of key weight loss information.
None of the websites addressed all the factors that influence weight loss, with most focusing only on one or two factors. Many had pages dedicated only to tips on dieting, or exclusively to exercise guidelines.
David C. Clarke, PhD, of the Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, said that one of the major challenges for health professionals is ensuring that the public is accessing reputable information. He advises that scientific evidence is generally considered the best knowledge, but admits that it can be difficult to find.
Clarke also acknowledged the reliability of blogs related to weight loss, noting: “While the study by Dr. Modave and his team highlights these challenges as they pertain to weight loss, his study also provides hope because it revealed that blogs — which I thought would have scored low in terms of information quality — were actually rated highest, meaning that blog authors are genuinely attempting to provide good information.
Blogs also rated high in terms of accessibility, which authoritative government, medical and university websites can use as inspiration for improving their design. So I’m optimistic that evidence-based information on weight loss will become increasingly emphasized on the Internet and Dr. Modave’s study provides important data about how to make this happen.”
-The Alternative Daily