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Sorting through the digital debris

by Christine Anameier on February 5th, 2010

As I sit here sniffling and coughing, I’m thinking, how can I get rid of this cold?

Let’s ask Google!

“How to Cure a Cold” is at eHow.com. The author, ranked as an “Authority,” advises me to inhale a lot of steam and avoid dairy products. Her credentials? “I have an English degree and love to write for fun, but I’ve never made a profit yet!” 

“How to Cure a Common Cold Naturally” also appears on eHow.com. This piece advises me to wash my hands a lot: “Studies show by doing this step once you have a cold will shorten the cold’s duration.” Drink water, drink green tea, rest, exercise (?), cut out sugar, add garlic tablets … Huh. The author’s background? Apparently she’s a freelance writer and certified Pilates instructor.

Another “How to Cure the Common Cold,” anonymously written, counsels me to become an infectious-disease expert and secure a massive research grant. There’s a raging flame war in the comments section, but the article got 2 stars out of 5 in their ratings system … so somebody liked it.

 “Cure for Common Colds” is brought to you by essortment.com. They list the symptoms of the common cold and observe that a cold lasts from 2-7 days “depending upon the virility of the strain.” (Oh my.) They admit, “there is no real fast cure for this condition,” recommend a bunch of OTC meds, and end with a butt-covering admonition to “contact your doctor.”

“How to Get Rid of a Cold Without Using Medications” on wikiHow.com says:

    • Don’t take medications.
    • “Keep your resting area clean and sanitary.”
    • Suck on zinc lozenges.
    • Take regular baths… 



    • ezinearticles.com recommends hypnosis
    • associatedcontent.com says “cut all dairy out of your diet”
    • bukisa.com (tagline: “Share your Knowledge, Earn Money”) says to put peroxide on a Q-tip and stick it up my nose
    • answers.yahoo.com provides off-the-cuff remarks from random people with no credentials whatsoever

All is not lost
If I know where to look, there’s reputable, scientifically supported advice out there. Luckily, I’ve heard of the Mayo Clinic (where an actual doctor neatly debunks the anti-dairy angle). I know I can trust WebMD or the Merck Manual. Otherwise, I might be wondering how to tell the reliable information from the opinions of random passersby.

Turn on your BS detector
I’ve started ignoring all search results pointing to eHow.com and its ilk.

A simple guideline: If the whole idea behind the site is “We know all sorts of stuff about everything,” beware. (Except for Wikipedia, which has enough critical mass to make its own rules much the way Amazon does.)

The content farms have learned to game the system, and dubious content is clogging up the works. If you do internet research and don’t know any better, you can wind up relying on content that’s based on somebody’s vague recollections or urban legends. Come on, Google. Find a way to make expert-written content float to the top. Otherwise, using your search engine will be the equivalent of polling the checkout line at the supermarket.

  • tedgoas

    Reminds me of the commercials for Bing late last year. Agreed that we don't need a lot of answers from content farms… just a few good ones we can trust.. especially for topics involving health and medicine!

  • http://paulmackenzieross.com pmross

    Isn't this exactly what Eric Schmidt of Google meant when he called the Internet a “cesspool” where false information thrives?

    Unfortunately, right now, Google are still facilitating that certain, let's call it detritus, does float to the top. I've seen cases where Bing has produced more relevant & accurate results, but that's only an anecdotal snapshot for me and not research/study.

    Let's hope the SEs crank up their “treatment plants” beyond the level they're working at right now.

  • A.G.

    Funny how this very entry illustrates the problem. For example, the Mayo Clinic debunks the specific claim about daily and phlegm, not whether milk consumption impedes recovery from a cold (the *relevant* question). As the M.C. implies, mucus viscosity is changed by dairy, so sinus & nasal mucus can be thickened, inhibiting the body's clearing of infection. But note…I am not a physician.

  • Scott

    I recently read an interview with someone from Google who highlighted that Google provides the most Popular result – not the most accurate. In fact, I would think you’re more likely to get urban myths than anything evidence-based.

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