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How Robots Censor Your Online Health Searches

What do you see when you Google ‘Natural Health? Not the same as everyone else apparently. It appears that many search results are tailored just for you, like product recommendations based on previous buys. Think Amazon. Internet giants like Google and Facebook are tweaking their algorithms to personalize user experience.

Content is filtered to ‘enable’ us to see only what they think we want to see, rather than all we can — and should see.

For instance, two people in different parts of the world search “Natural health” and get completely different Google results. The results are based on markers like previous browsing history, geographical area, browsing history of other users in the geographical area and more.

Filter Bubbles
Eli Pariser and others call this type of algorithmic censorship “Filter Bubbles”. We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ where we are fed information junk food instead of a balanced information diet!

Pariser believes this will severely affect the spread of high quality and relevant alternative and natural health information. This is especially bad news for the poorest, least educated populations who tend to live in similar geographic clusters.

Since these filters show information partly based on geographic relevance, it is unlikely that those living in poor neighbourhoods receive information they need to better themselves. Rather, they’ll get information of relevance to all the others searching in their location.

The likely result? The poor get poorer (and fatter)

Effects on Your Health Choices

What does this mean for you and your ability to make informed health choices? It means that:

  1. Your search outcomes are not objective facts but result from algorithms set by the search engines to deliver information they think you want, not what you may in fact need.
  2. You are restricted in learning new information, because the content delivered affirms what you already think is true even if it is not.
  3. You miss out on information which could challenge or broaden your worldview, and improve your health and well being – information that you really need to make informed health decisions.

It is only if you are really motivated, and have time, that you may make the extra effort to dig deeper and search for a wider variety of results.

But statistics show that most people don’t dig deeper into search results. According to SEO Scientist 60-80 percent of users click on only the first 3 results of a search.

Most don’t have the time or the know how to ‘dig deeper’.

What can You Do to Reduce this Censorship?

The good news is that the search engines are not yet as bad as Rupert Murdock (the UK newspaper and TV mogul), where “he who controls the media controls the message”!

  1. That’s because currently with effort, you can reduce the Censorship and avoid being tracked, advertised to, and have your personal information treated as a commodity. Some options for you to consider include:
  2. The ability to shut this type of filtering off, or even better, to have to enable it in the first place, so that the default is unbiased, unfiltered searches. A good tool is the Chrome opt out extension Disconnect, which claims it can depersonalize searches across the web. This also applies to AdBlock, ChromeBlock, and Widgetblock.

Refining your search using descriptive wording and quotes, or the advanced search in Google. For example, you can specify whether you want conventional or alternative health information and that changes the outcome. So when searching for treating diabetes, you Google: “treating diabetes +alternative medicine” or “treating diabetes +conventional medicine” etc.


Net Neutrality about natural health and much other ‘alternative’ information is indeed being eroded. And I can’t help but wonder how long it will take until the search engines do ‘control the message’.

Personally I like to have tailored information but only when I want it as this can optimise search time. But I don’t like to have to ‘use my smarts’ to outwit the algorithms and get more objective results. I don’t always feel ‘smart’!


  • “Hi there, I can’t see how this is as much of an issue as you are making out it out to be Warren. In my experience Google’s efforts to personalise their search results is all in the interests of the end user (I don’t work for them; but I’m a web professional). Mostly the results seem tailored to results that actually are geographical – like wanting to find a health food store in your local area. You don’t want to have to wade through a thousand stores in far flung places before you find your own. Meanwhile, a site with top notch, regularly updated, quality content which is linked to heavily from other prominent sites will always make it up there wherever you are (think wikipedia, BBC). Google’s main business is selling advertising (search results / gmail / adwords) so it is always in their interest to get you the most relevant search results. That’s why they are trying to make it geographical. If their search results don’t continue to be relevant to you, they lose their ability to sell advertising. Privacy concerns do come in with products like gmail where your email is computer read to target adverts at you. If you have a Google account, your web history is stored but can be turned off at any time. If you don’t, you only have to delete your cookies for Google to lose track of you. True most users won’t do either of these things, but their actions still don’t feel as draconian as you may be suggesting here. Net Neutrality is a different issue entirely in my understanding; that’s the attempts of internet service providers (AT&T and others) to make the internet more like TV, with channels they can sell us, and restricted content otherwise. Just my two cents, Keep up the great work otherwise, Carl.”

    Carl May 13 2011

  • “Better yet, don’t use Google – but still get all the resources of its huge database. You can search Google anonymously by using a "proxy service." A proxy service allows users to surf the web with complete privacy. The proxy lets users browse websites safely and anonymously without passing on any private, personally identifiable information to the websites they view. Go on over to and read about their privacy features. Startingpage does not record your IP address (your fingerprint on the Internet), nor do they share your personal information with any third party. When you search on Startingpage the web results are generated by Google – while surfing with complete privacy. Startingpage was developed by Ixquick, the world’s most private search engine. Ixquick has been third-party certified by a European Union privacy initiative and is the first and only EU approved search engine. Another way to hide your address is by using a free proxy service such as You can surf anonymously by using their IP address. This works well if there are internet filters or blocked websites at work or school. This service is free and 100% secure. You can set Startingpage as your default search engine and know that your privacy is protected. I first learned about them on the Coast to Coast AM radio show.  Google has become a massive collector of personal information, and without our permission. So, take advantage of the available technology and don’t let "them" take advantage of you!”

    Doug May 13 2011

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