The Stability of Google

With algorithms drawing on billions of websites and petabytes of data, one might assume that Google’s search rankings are a relatively stable information resource.  An anecdote from today’s news suggests that caution is in order.  On January 6, 2012, a press release was issued http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/About-Us/News/News-Releases-2012/Moderate-Red-Wine-Drinking-May-Help-Cut-Womens-Breast-Cancer-Risk-Cedars-Sinai-Study-Shows.aspx that was picked up by a number of news organizations including UPI, CBS, Yahoo and news-medical.net.  The press release refers to a paper to appear in the Journal of Women’s Health (impact factor 1.5) that describes a small study (36 women) on the effect of red wine consumption on plasma estrogen and androgen levels.  The press release does not mention the numerous epidemiology studies showing no difference between red and white wine consumption; they both increase the risk of breast cancer even at modest levels of consumption (e.g. 1-5).

On January 7th, one day after the press release, a Google web search for “wine breast cancer risk” returned 8.3 million hits.  9 of the top 10 and 16 of the top 20 highest rank hits refer to the study described in the press release.  The 7th ranked hit is a web page from Calwineries.com that acknowledges an increased risk of breast cancer with heavy alcohol consumption but suggests that moderate wine consumption may be OK. The 13th and 17th ranked hits are earlier news stories reporting increased risk with alcohol consumption, and the 20th ranked hit is a Wikipedia page with a reasonable discussion of the increased risk of cancer associated with alcohol consumption.  Note that these are not the Google News ranks, these are the main Google web search results.

The PR firm employed by the research institute may be patting themselves on the back about their great success in promoting the visibility of their client, and the press release may have struck a nerve because many of us enjoy a glass of good wine and would really like to believe it will improve our health.   Unfortunately, many of the news articles have titles like “Red wine may reduce breast cancer risk” or “New Study Shows Red Wine May Reduce Cancer Risk In Women”.   A women seeing one of these news articles, might follow up with a Google search and conclude that a major study had been released causing a paradigm shift in the field and that consumption of moderate amounts of red wine would be protective against breast cancer risk.   The study in question is small, the article has not appeared in print, the journal in which it will appear has a modest impact factor, and the findings refer only to biochemical changes, not epidemiologically validated cancer risk.  There remains a substantial body of epidemiology showing that red wine consumption is associated with increased risk for breast cancer in human populations.  There is no paradigm shift.  It will be interesting to see how Google’s search results evolve over the coming weeks and months, but at present they are quite misleading.  Given the frequency with which physicians and nurses consult Google, the fickle nature of Google as an information source is worrisome.

Note: while this blog refers to Google searches, Bing.com and Yahoo.com also rank links to news articles about this press release highly in their search results.   Seems like everyone is losing sight of the need to provide reliable information in the race to be first with their search results.

1)      Willet et al. (1987) NEJM 316(19):1174
2)     Allen et al. J Natl Cancer Inst (2009) 101 (5): 296-305.
3)     Newcomb et al. Cancer Epid Biomarkers 18(3):1007-10.
4)     Li et al. European Journal of Cancer (2009) 45(5):843-50.
5)     Zhang et al. Am J Epidemiol (2009) 165 (6): 667–76

David J. States MD PhD FACMI
Chief Scientific Officer
OncProTech LLC

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