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What does a Google search for cosmetic and laser procedures reveal?



When consumers use Google to search for information about cosmetic and laser dermatologic procedures, results link to the websites of professional societies only 8% of the time, and even less frequently to websites of academic centers and peer-reviewed medical journals, results from a novel study showed.

Google search on iPad EricVega/iStock Unreleased

“An increasing number of patients are seeking information about cosmetic and laser dermatology from online sources,” Jennifer L. Sawaya, MD, said in an interview in advance of the annual conference of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. “There are several studies that have discussed the role of the Internet and social media in dermatology. To our knowledge, this is the first study to specifically look at the results of Google search terms within our field to investigate which sources are providing this information.”

Dr. Sawaya, a fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Boston, and her colleagues cross-measured keyword analytics provided by Zalea, an online resource on cosmetic treatments for consumers, with the most used Instagram hashtags to obtain 10 online keywords: body contouring, Botox, fillers, CoolSculpting, laser hair removal, tattoo removal, skin tightening, skin rejuvenation, cosmetic surgery, and liposuction. Next, they used an advanced Google search to obtain the top 25 search results for each of those 10 keywords and categorized information sources as professional societies, peer-reviewed journals, non–peer-reviewed online health information, news/media, device/cosmeceutical companies, clinical practices, academic centers, or medical spas.

Overall, the top search results came from clinical practices 23% of the time, followed by online health information sites (19%), medical spas (16%), and news/media (15%). A much smaller percentage of the search results came from professional societies (8%), academic centers (6%), and peer-reviewed medical journals (5%). Within the clinical practices and medical spas, nearly half of these sources were plastic surgeons, while board-certified dermatologists comprised only 21% of the clinical information sources.

When Dr. Sawaya and her associates evaluated the source of search results for each keyword, results varied. For example, search results for “body contouring” came most frequently from professional societies and clinical practices (20% each), “Botox” from news/media (36%), “fillers” from online health information (28%), “CoolSculpting” from clinical practices (40%), “laser hair removal” from news/media (32%), “tattoo removal” from medical spas (28%), “skin tightening” from news/media (24%), “skin rejuvenation” from medical spas (28%), “cosmetic surgery” from clinical practices (52%), and “liposuction” from online health information (36%).

“Our clinical take-home message is essentially a call for an increasing amount of evidence-based, academic content to be made available for online consumption,” Dr. Sawaya said. “In an era when patients seek a lot of medical information online and make important decisions through this manner, we have an obligation to understand what is out there and do our best to improve the quality of available information.”

Dr. Jennifer L. Sawaya fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and The Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Boston

Dr. Jennifer L. Sawaya

She acknowledged certain limitations of the study, including the fact that results of a Google search may vary depending on the type of device used (mobile, desktop) as well as the location of the device. “An additional limitation is how the search history on the device may impact results,” she said. “To control for this, the device history, cache, and cookies were cleared prior to the search. Despite these controls, it is unclear how and to what extent prior searches affect the Google ranking algorithm. We acknowledge that the findings in this study reflect a single point in time and that the results of a Google search will change dynamically based on many factors. Finally, we acknowledge that our study is based on a single search engine site and that the trends we observe with Google may not be extrapolated to other online channels.”

Dr. Sawaya reported having no financial disclosures.

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