Hey, Google: Remember that stem cell problem you tried to solve in 2019 by banning clinics from advertising unproven therapies on your platform?
The solution did not last. The clinics adapted, but you didn’t, leading to widespread use of your research platform by clinics to initiate risky cell injections.
In response to criticism that Google ads for unproven medical offers hurt, the company adopted a policy in 2019 to ban stem cell clinic advertising on its platform. This positive step was part of a larger movement against advertisements selling unproven therapies. Many of the culprits were clinics touting stem cells as treatments for everything from Alzheimer’s disease to stroke.
After the ban was implemented, people looking for ‘stem cells for COPD’ or ‘stem cells for neuropathy’, to name just two examples, would no longer see a slew of ads for clinics offering risky and unproven therapies above Google search results. It worked for a while. But stem cell clinics and others promoting unproven therapies are now effectively playing with Google’s search engine to attract new customers.
For example, while stem cell clinics may no longer rely on Google ads to get to the top of a search results page, some clinics still dominate large portions of stem cell-related Google search results. In this way, the company inadvertently sends many people to these clinics to receive risky and unproven injections which generally do not have FDA approval and, in my opinion, have no solid scientific or medical basis. .
This weakness in Google search has become a public health issue.
The FDA has been largely ineffective in regulating stem cell clinics. Of course, he issued warning to a few. But hundreds of these clinics operate in the United States, and many more around the world. I hope the FDA becomes more aggressive in regulating US clinics – and there are signs it may do so in the future – but until then, Google has a responsibility to tackle its side of the problem. .
What is the problem more specifically?
For many of the most common searches related to stem cells, Google often spits out the top results by listing either websites for stem cell clinics or promotional sites that direct potential customers to the clinics. This means that if you want to learn more about stem cells via Google, the search engine will often direct you to profiteering clinics like the supposed authorities.
These troubling clinics often outrank the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, universities, and other authoritative sites like the Mayo Clinic in Google search results.
Consider the two examples I mentioned earlier: “stem cells for neuropathy” and “stem cells for COPD”. As of this writing, the number one outcome in each case is a stem cell clinic, which outranks the American Academy of Neurology, American Lung Association, NIH, and other truly authoritative sites. In the case of neuropathy research, almost every result on the first page is a for-profit clinic selling unproven stem cell injections.
In this way, Google puts vulnerable people at risk. At the very least, thousands of people are wasting large sums of money on generally unnecessary “treatments”. But it’s more than that. We have learned over the past few years how much of a health risk at stem cell clinics can be a health gamble with reports of patients being blindsided, developing the life-threatening bloodstream infection known as Sepsis, or having other serious side effects. In rare cases, people have died.
The stem cell problem with Google — and how it handles searches for other unproven therapies — has to do with search engine optimization (SEO). Simply put, SEO basically designs a website to work the way Google thinks is best. Websites with the best SEO will almost always rank first in Google search results, even if they sell unproven biomedical offerings.
This must change.
As it stands, anyone trying to pitch a theoretically unproven therapy just has to pump enough money into SEO and Google will usually rank them very high or very high in search results, even whether the supposed treatment is boguou dangerous. Google search has effectively become a form of advertising for sketchy health care. In the worst-case scenario, Google’s top-ranked sites may even sell non-FDA-approved stem cell therapies that are illegal in the United States.
Google has known about this issue at least since spring 2021, but nothing obvious has changed. At that time, I was able to meet with Google representatives about my concerns. We had an interesting discussion, but I didn’t get very far in advocating for change.
One thing I’ve learned is that there are at least two sides to Google, and they don’t necessarily connect well to each other. Policy makers are on one side. They are the ones responsible for banning stem cell clinics from advertising. The research team is on the other side, and they have a very different perspective on things.
The disconnect between the two is exemplified by the fact that many of the same stem cell clinics now banned from advertising on Google are the same ones whose websites kill it with Google search and in this way probably drive a lot of customers to their clinics profitable but risky.
The problem with stem cell clinics is just the tip of the iceberg. What I’ve observed with stem cells is happening much more broadly with healthcare-related searches in Google. It’s pretty easy to find number one ranking examples of snake oil in Google search. For example, Goop’s page promoting jade eggs ranks better for a search for jade eggs and above the Cleveland Clinic’s relevant information page, and a search for energy healing yields a page from an energy healing practitioner above the pages demystifying the practice.
Those in charge of Google Search might argue that’s how it should be. Perhaps they would say that hopeful searchers want to be directed to unproven health care providers more than to factual information, as evidenced by the models searchers click on. However, the search engine has a greater responsibility to public health than following the health care hype that is popular with the public at any given time.
The bottom line is that when it comes to health and healthcare, Google search isn’t as logical or safe as many of us might assume.
I believe part of what is happening is that Google treats its search engine as almost sacred. As a result, he may not want to factor too many ethical or public safety considerations into the operation of his search engine.
At this point, however, Google can’t afford to see its search engine in such a hallowed way when it comes to healthcare. There are simply too many websites providing unproven – and even risky – treatments that Google nevertheless ranks highly.
Is this a problem that can be solved? Can Google determine what an unproven medical offer is for sale on a website? Could the company distinguish between ongoing clinical research and the commercialization of unproven therapies? Such things might be difficult, but I’m sure Google can figure it all out.
In areas not related to health care, such as guides on how to make weapons of mass destruction or certain types of pornography, Google already takes into consideration whether websites have questionable or illegal content or products for sale. These websites usually do not appear in search results. It should be no less important to make research related to health care safer.
Google’s ongoing stem cell problem is emblematic of a serious, larger problem with unproven biomedical offerings that the company needs to address. The solution seems obvious: the sale of an unproven treatment must become a consistent and major negative SEO ranking factor incorporated into the company’s algorithms.
Otherwise, Google, you continue to empower those who sell unproven and sometimes even dangerous medical products and put the public at risk.
Paul Knoepfler is a professor at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, whose research focuses on stem cells and cancer. He writes about ethics, politics and other issues on his blog, The niche. Ads on The Niche are limited to reagents for stem cell researchers, not therapy for patients.