Search engines specialize in finding health info online
■ The companies creating them are challenging each other as well as hoping to compete with Google and other popular general Internet site finders.
By Tyler Chin — Posted Nov. 21, 2005
Does the world need another search engine in a Google-mad world?
Definitely, according to those behind search engines targeting only health information searches. Since June, three health search engines -- Healthline, Healia and Mamma.com Inc.-- have made their debut online.
Few consumers are aware of these search engines because most online searchers use Google, Yahoo or MSN. But the specialized search-engine companies say there's a need because they can deliver more meaningful results than general-purpose search engines, or even each other. That's because, the health search-engine companies claim, they only look for sites that have health information, use internal criteria to handpick sites they believe offer high quality information or both.
"Just like in the generic search-engine world, there's many different [health] search engines and they all have pros and cons," said Tom Eng, MPH, founder and CEO of Healia Inc., Bellevue, Wash., which launched its health search engine this summer.
At this time, Healia is available only through employers, health care organizations and insurers that pay a fee to license its technology, offering it as a service to employees and members, Eng said.
There are about a dozen health search engines that are being actively maintained, he estimates.
One of them is Healthline, which debuted on Oct. 17. San Francisco-based Healthline was formerly known asYourDoctor.com -- a health information site founded in 1999 by James Norman, MD.
Healthline differs from other search engines because it has developed a medical taxonomy so that when searchers, for example, enter the words "heart attack" in the search box, it also combs through the 50 million pages it has indexed so far for the term "myocardial infarction," said West Shell, CEO of Healthline Networks Inc., which owns Healthline.
That helps Healthline deliver more relevant results to consumers, which in turn helps improve the quality of interaction between patients and physicians, Shell said. He added that Healthline expects to market itself to physicians in the hope that doctors will prescribe information from its site to patients. The service is free.
Healthline searches 62,000 health sites that it rates as having the highest quality information based on several indicators, said Bill McGee, vice president of marketing and sales of Healthline Networks. Those indicators include whether the sites are operated by the government, universities, academic medical centers and health care organizations.
While Healthline culls tens of thousands of health sites, others search only a fraction of that. "The important thing is not quantity but quality," said Eng, of Healia, which culls more than 8,000 health sites.
Another search engine -- Mamma.com, a general search engine that launched a health search engine in June -- culls fewer than 20 sites. When searchers use Mamma.com's health search engine, the results page will contain some items marked with a red icon, indicating that the results are from one of 10 health sites handpicked by Mamma.com for the quality of their information.
The select sites include MedicineNet.com, WebMD, emedicine.com, NHS Direct Online (Britain's National Health Service), the Mayo Clinic and Medline Plus, said Deborah Kilpatrick, product marketing manager for Mamma.com. Unmarked results are from eight search engines and directories, including Yahoo, Open Directory Project, Gigablast and Entireweb, Wisenut and Looksmart, and About.com.
Unlike many mainstream or competing search engines, Montreal-based Mamma.com doesn't index or store Web pages in its own servers, Kilpatrick said. Instead, the search engine goes to and pulls results directly from its source sites, enabling it to deliver the most up-to-date information the sites have at that moment because Mamma.com searches them in real time, Kilpatrick said.
Other health-specific search engines include:
- MedHunt, from the Health on the Net Foundation, a Geneva-based organization that has developed a set of guidelines for Web sites that provide health information content.
- Medic8, a search engine that only indexes sites that that have been handpicked by physicians in the United Kingdom.
- OmniMedicalSearch, which was founded by Jason Morrow, an American living in Romania.