A new study by Microsoft finds that Internet searches for medical information can result in a condition called cyberchondria, which is similar to hypochondria, but is caused by the availability of a vast and uncertain medical literature on the Web, as well as by how that information is organized and retrieved. The researchers’ definition of cyberchondria is “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.” Escalation is defined as an increase in concern during a single search session. Self-diagnosis is often made from search rankings, which could place more severe but less common maladies in front of the more common, and benign, ones. “People tend to look at just the first couple results,” said Eric Horvitz, one of the researchers responsible for the study. “If they find ‘brain tumor’ or ‘A.L.S.,’ that’s their launching point."

Microsoft’s researchers relied upon several studies to report the following: while 8 in 10 American adults have searched for health-related information online, 75% of those did so without checking the validity or age of the information obtained. 70% of the medical information on the Web is of poor quality.

Exposing people with no medical training to this information can result in harmful self-diagnosis or treatment. The authors cite a 2007 study by Ayers and Kronenfeld that found that “the more frequently a person uses the Web as a source of health information, the more likely they are to change their health behavior.”

Almost 25 percent of the respondents said Internet information was the tipping point for scheduling an appointment with a doctor: in 73 percent of those cases, the doctor found nothing serious wrong with them.

Since cyberchondria is often a result of search engine algorithms, the researchers call on SEO to modify how health results are ranked. “Search engine architects have a responsibility to ensure that searchers do not experience unnecessary concern generated by the ranking algorithms their engines use.”

The full report is available as a pdf from Microsoft.

By Mark Alvarez