Here comes Healia

Here comes Healia

I devote a fair amount of space on this blog to whining about Google (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) . The company retains too much information about searchers and fundamentally is more interested in segmenting searchers for advertisers than in serving the end user. However, I have to admit they are damn good at what they do, and like most people I know, I use Google all the time despite my reservations.

I’ve mentioned before a new health care focused search engine, Healia. It’s been in beta for awhile; it’s now being launched officially. I like Healia’s philosophy:

Generic search engines provide good results for many general topic areas, but they often provide questionable or “harmful” results for many health-related topics. This is especially true for health topics that are commonly the subject of scams and questionable activities. For example, most search engines produce links to questionable results promoting or selling unproven products and services in response to searches within the areas of alternative medicine, nutrition, diet and weight loss, prescription drugs, and cures. Healia’s innovative technology ensures you get high quality results from the most trusted sources on the Web.

One of the nice things about Healia is the ability to filter searches. Type in a search term like “diabetes” and Healia will give you the opportunity to filter the results by criteria such as male/female, kids/teens/seniors, and to look for content of different types, e.g., basic/advanced reading, easy to scan/fast loading/interactive tools. Then there are a number of tabs containing results by type, such as symptoms, diagnosis/tests, and treatment.

I tried a search on diabetes, which should be a good term since there is so much published about the topic and the filtering function should be helpful. I decided to filter for males and basic reading. Results weren’t good. I clicked the Symptoms tab and found the following:

  • The first listing was a dead link for Advocate Health. I’m not even sure from the description that the result was relevant.
  • The second listing was to the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association discussion board, and contained a marginally relevant post related to gestational diabetes.

Moving on to the Diagnosis/Tests tab, results weren’t much better:

I did receive a warning that, “Selecting multiple filters may produce few results; deselect one or more filters to see more links.” But for a topic as broad as diabetes, that’s a fairly lame message. Plus the problem wasn’t the number of links but the quality of them. When I deselected the links I got more relevant results. Maybe that’s because there isn’t that much of a difference between men and women for diabetes, I don’t know. In any case it requires too much thinking and the results aren’t clearly better than Google’s.

I tried searching on Google for diabetes symptoms males and got better results. Google’s algorithm incorporated the “males” term but since it wasn’t terribly differentiating it didn’t throw off the results :

  • The first link was to MaleHealth: Diabetes, which talked about diabetes symptoms and had links to male health topics
  • There was a sponsored link to Diabetes Symptom Directory

I then went to Google Co-op, which I’ve maligned in the past, and typed in diabetes. It brought up a similar list of filters and topics as Healia, but it only lets you select one filter at a time (probably a good idea given the Healia experience). There’s also a long list of sponsored ads. I then selected symptoms and got relevant results and two relevant ads. Same deal when I selected tests/diagnosis.

I don’t doubt that there are other searches where Healia does a better job than Google. In particular, searches for topics like diet pills or Viagra –or any topic that generates a lot of spam– are likely to benefit from human moderation.

Unfortunately for Healia it will need to be not just at parity but clearly superior to Google to persuade people to use it. Considering that Google has a gaggle of unpaid consultants helping it improve its health care searches, that’s going to be tough. (You don’t see as many volunteers for Microsoft, helping them keep upstarts like Linux at bay!)

We really do need alternatives to Google for health care searches, and I hope Healia can hang in there. At a minimum, it will have to make the filters work better to win me over.

September 18, 2006

3 thoughts on “Here comes Healia”

  1. Healia welcomes the above feedback and would like to respond to these comments. Healia is currently the only search engine that allows users to select multiple filters. Due to the breadth and depth limitations of quality online health information, we are aware that some combinations of certain filters and search terms may result in less relevant results. We are continually refining Healia to improve the way it responds in these situations.

    In the cited example of “diabetes” with “males” and “basic reading” and “symptoms” (or “diagnosis/tests”) selected, the results may not be as relevant because there are extremely few, if any, documents that are specifically focused on symptoms (or diagnosis) of diabetes among men that are written at a basic reading level. The reasons for this are: 1) symptoms (or diagnosis) of diabetes, as a concept, is not very differentiating from the gender perspective (as opposed to something like breast cancer where symptoms and diagnosis are quite different among men and women), and 2) relatively few high quality documents are written at a basic reading level (most are at an advanced level). When there are limited documents that are a direct fit for the search term and the selected filters, the system tries to offer at least some results even if they may not be the most relevant.

    There are many examples of where Healia’s filters are very successful even when several filters are selected at once. For example, try “diabetes” with “treatment” and “kids” selected or try
    “STDs” with “prevention” and “females”.

    The Healia comparison with Google Co-op that is sited above is confusing, since Healia produces numerous relevant documents when searching on “diabetes” with “symptoms” or “diagnosis/tests” checked.

    A noticeable difference between Healia’s filters and Google’s is that Google’s filters are focused on the subject matter of the document and lack any personalized filters such as gender, age group, and race/ethnicity. The ability to filter by demographic variables is often very helpful to consumers.

    To illustrate the substantial differences between Healia and Google in terms of quality of results, we suggest readers do a few comparative searches on health topics that are commonly the subject of spam and dubious activities, including alternative medicine, nutrition, diet and weight loss, prescription drugs, and cures for serious diseases. For example, compare “diet pills” on Healia versus “diet pills” on Google, or
    “viagra” on Healia versus “Viagra” on Google To see the clear advantages of a health-optimized search engine, compare “ACL” on Healia versus “ACL” on Google.

    Healia is dedicated to becoming the consumer’s first choice for finding high quality and personally relevant health information. In the coming months, we will be further enhancing our technology including our filters and other features. We are completely dedicated to providing the best user experience and quality product and welcome everyone to send us your feedback about what you like and where we can do better.

    — The Healia Team

  2. The comments are well taken and I look forward to seeing Healia continue to improve. One suggestion would be a kind of “smart filtering” system. Rather than putting up a stock warning about using multiple filters, it would be better if Healia could automatically suggest which filters to uncheck or provide more specific guidance for the user. Healia already presents suggestions of broader and narrower search terms. Wouldn’t it be nice if the service could help the user select the most sensitive filters? In the diabetes example, I’d rather have seen an indication from the system suggesting that the “male” filter was throwing off the results rather than get a bunch of results that weren’t so useful.

    Maybe we can ask some of those tagging for Google’s Health Co-op to spend a little time providing feedback to Healia as well?

  3. I think this is the way things are moving… Google will continue to be king for overall searches, but there needs to be the further development of specific “niche” search engines for specific topics like health.

    With yahoo and msn chasing google’s tail, I think it would be extremely valuable for them to up the bar on manual checking for spam. Think about how little they could spend to hire even 2,000 people to help improve the quality of their index.


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