Do We Need FDA Hearings on SEO & User Experience?

Girl on computer

By Sven Larsen (@zemoga)

How much attention should the government be paying to social media? As the Pixels and Pills team gears up for their coverage of the FDA hearings on social media, I’ve been thinking a lot about how patients receive their information from the web. And I wonder if the FDA shouldn’t be looking at a lot more than Facebook and Twitter?

For consumers, these days, there are literally thousands of choices when it comes to receiving information about drugs and disease states. And if the FDA receives useful, actionable information from the upcoming hearings that figure could expand exponentially. But how are patients supposed to know where to go to receive government approved, reliable and trustworthy educational materials about the issues that concern them?

Consider the way that most patients get their digital health information currently. Most Americans start their online information with a search engine query (one of the reasons why it’s vital that Google is represented at this week’s hearings). Usually they are typing in an “organic search term” like “diabetes” or “fibromyalgia”. What are they likely to turn up?

For “fibromyalgia” the top results look like this:

  1. Google results

    It’s common knowledge in both print and digital experiences that information that appears “below the fold” is not consumed as often by the user. So a patient is most likely to receive their first information about their condition from a sponsored site or a private company like WebMD or Google. I’m actually glad to see Lilly at the top of the page since I know they at least follow compliance guidelines. But it seems really strange to me that the lead in educating the public about healthcare and conditions appears to be left almost entirely in private hands.
  2. Of course, I know that’s not entirely the case. The CDC website is the second most visited government website after and it’s loaded with useful content and information. But does anyone see it? The site has a high Google Page Rank and it appears to be search engine optimized but it doesn’t even show up on the first page of many Google searches. And when I ran a Website Grader report on the site it’s reading level came back as “graduate school”. That doesn’t seem optimal for mass consumption.
  3. Government healthcare sites may be disadvantaged by the fact that they don’t accept advertising (and thus aren’t of particular interest to the search giants like Google and Yahoo). But it seems to me that we need to find some way to make sure that the first information consumers receive about their health comes from some sort of reliable, trusted source. The government needs to find a way to effectively communicate this information through video, animation and marriages of text and graphic that are simple and easy to understand. And then they need to make that information as easy as possible to find. The alternative is to create content guidelines for the private health information sites and monitor compliance in the same way Pharmaceutical companies’ messaging is currently inspected. But I think we can all agree that adding another level of bureaucracy to an overtaxed system is not an ideal alternative.
  4. Do we need to teach the FDA (and other government organizations) about SEO, user experience and design, and other basics of digital communication? If so, shouldn’t we be focussing on these subjects before we join the heady charge in to the world of social media?
  5. What do you think should be the FDA’s top priority?
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