Practically everybody knows and uses WebMD, and most people generally have respect for this mainstay commercial health website. The kind of health information it publishes is generally good and well-vetted — people trust it. They’ve also drawn a clear line between their advertising and editorial departments. I have never once been unclear what is advertising and what is editorial content on a WebMD site.
In short, most people respect WebMD.
The same cannot be said for some of the dubious health properties under the Internet Brands umbrella. Just a cursory review of a few of their health websites demonstrate everything that WebMD is not — seemingly unethical, ad-cluttered sites that are more about revenue generation than providing high-quality health content.
That’s why WebMD should run, not walk, away from the deal to be acquired by Internet Brands.
To better understand how Internet Brands runs its health portfolio, I checked out a random sampling of four of Internet Brands’ health websites: AllAboutCounseling.com, SoberRecovery.com, HealthBoards.com, and TheGoodDrugsGuide.com.
Here are a few of the things I’m looking for in a quality health website:
- Who: Clear indication of who owns and oversees the daily production of the website (usually in the “About Us” section). If a website doesn’t list names or is unclear about its ownership, that is a red flag, since most legitimate websites don’t try and hide this information.
- Quality: Clearly authored editorial articles should indicate authorship, date (or last-updated date), and references (when needed and appropriate). Editorial content should be clearly differentiated from advertising and sponsored content. Editorial content should be well-written with clear indications of editing, and if older, updating.
- Policies: If they sell advertising or promote products or services on their site or blog, do they have a clear editorial and/or advertising policy that discloses this relationship. Do they take “paid posts” or other kinds of paid content? Do they clearly indicate paid referral fees for services they promote?
- Forums: If they have an online community, is it active? Is it spam-free? Is it well-moderated according to a set of public guidelines or rules?
There’s no indication of who runs this website in the “About Us” section. Like some (but not all) Internet Brands’ health websites, it is branded only in the footer of the site with a small logo. There is no mention of Internet Brands on the “About Us” page, which looks like it hasn’t been updated in years.
While the editorial content appears interesting and well-written (with references in some of the articles) sometimes, all the editorial content appeared to be lacking authorship and dates.
More disturbing is the lack of any type of differentiation on the website between what is advertising and what is editorial content. No “advertising” or “sponsorship” notes appear anywhere around advertisements and sponsored placements. Apparently the site acts as yet another funnel for the addiction treatment space, as nearly everything in the current site’s template appears to be addiction treatment center related. (This is what I consider to be a part of the problem of seedy, deceptive online marketing practices of the addiction treatment center industry.)
And when you try and leave the website, you get one of these boxes:
So I click on it and engage in this brief interaction with someone not interested in talking about AllAboutCounseling.com at all:
Called the phone number, since she said I should call it if I “have any other questions.” I did have more questions about the website and topics I’m interested in, but this number just reached a guy associated with the same treatment center referral system. He didn’t know anything about the website I was coming from (“We run a number of websites as an advertising sort of thing,” he told me), and couldn’t answer any questions about AllAboutCounseling.com.
At no point is any of this labeled Advertising, when clearly it is. None of this has anything to do with the website, yet if you were an unsuspecting visitor to this site, you’d have zero knowledge of this.
Last, this website’s forums are either inactive or have spam (some of which hasn’t been removed in more than two weeks’ time when I visited). The website’s design looks like it comes from the 1990s.
While SoberRecovery.com suffers from many of the same issues as AllAboutCounseling.com, at least it looks modern. But right off the bat, a visitor to the site is hit with a query to “Find the Right Treatment center in Your Area.” Is this the “right treatment center” because those treatment centers (a) paid to be listed here? Or is it because (b) an editorial and quality review team visited all the treatment centers in the country, and can recommend these as being the best according to a set of defined standards and guidelines?
If you chose (a), you’d be correct. Because if you join their directory for the low, low price of only $200/month, you can have your treatment center listed on the SoberRecovery.com website. (Psych Central also hosts a directory of resources; we don’t accept all sites submitted nor do we accept payment as a way of getting listed in it.)
Perhaps because of the newer template, their editorial articles do list authors and dates next to each article. But the template is noticeably lacking in differentiating editorial content from paid or sponsored content, with widgets such as, “Featured Programs” clearly showing advertising.
This website seems to be updated far more regularly, and its online community appears much more active (and spam free!). Sadly, though, the website lacks any kind of “About Us” section that I could find, which is usually a red flag for any legitimate health website. SoberRecovery.com does, however, feature a prominent “Advertise with us” button, that takes me to a page titled, “Advertise on the World’s Largest Network of Recovery Sites.”
“Get Help” leads one to an “Alcohol Drug Abuse Confidential Assessment,” which pulls the form from this URL:
As you can see, this is yet another website that has been purposed to drive leads for addiction recovery centers. The fact that it publishes content almost seems secondary.
HealthBoards.com is primarily an online community made up of forums for a range of hundreds of health conditions. It lists over one million members who’ve posted nearly six million times to the forums. While owned by Internet Brands for years, the site makes no mention of its corporate parent. Instead, the site claims it is “owned and operated by HealthBoards.com.” The “About Us” section doesn’t appear to have been updated in years.
HealthBoards is a well-run, respected online community which remains very active; most of the conditions they support have been posted to in the past month.
However, like all of the Internet Brands’ health websites I’ve reviewed, it lacks a clear indicator that some of the content on the site is advertising. This may confuse some readers into thinking something is editorial content when it is actually an advertisement. Lastly, the “Blogs” menu item only lists a single blog post — from 2013. So some parts of the site are not as active as its forums.
As with two of the other three websites I visited, I immediate get greeted with an unlabeled advertising request to “Chat with us.” I decline (as I’ve had to do more than a dozen times already in the course of an hour-and-a-half of reviewing these four sites). As with AllAboutCounseling.com, this site’s template appears older and readily mixes sponsored content with the site’s editorial features (such as the search bar). Every referral phone number should be followed by the word (Ad) or (Sponsor), but is not. Advertisements, as on all the Internet Brands’ websites I reviewed, are unlabeled.
Editorial articles lack authorship and dates, as on AllAboutCounseling.com’s website. As with all of the Internet Brands’ websites I’ve reviewed, the “About Us” page lacks any information about who owns and runs the site currently. Unlike HealthBoards.com, however, this site does have the Internet Brands logo displayed in the footer of each page.
The blog was last updated in May 2017, and does feature authorship and date information, but is clearly not updated regularly.
Since this site was also plastered with multiple referral phone numbers to call a “24-hour helpline,” I thought I’d give one of the numbers a try. The nice woman who answered (after about eight rings and multiple transfers) didn’t know anything about “TheGoodDrugsGuide.com” website. Instead, she said they were the Sprout Group, an addiction treatment referral service for private drug and addiction treatment centers.
Does the advertisement mention anything about a referral line just trying to get me into a private drug or addiction treatment center? Nope, it’s branded as the site’s own “24-hour free helpline,” which sounds a lot like the helplines offered by non-profits and government agencies to assist people. This is just another example, in my opinion, of the advertising lows sites like this sink to in order to drive people to help they may or may not need.
The site also features a smaller online community that appears not to be very active, but was at least spam-free.
While the WebMD deal already appears to be done, Internet Brands would be wise to take a long, hard look at the way it does business online. Some of the health websites reviewed here have significant issues, which may tarnish the reputation and value of all online commercial health websites if not addressed.
WebMD is one of the gold standards when it comes to publishing reliable health information online. We hope some of its values and procedures trickle down into the Internet Brands’ set of health websites — rather than the other way around. With KKR’s apparent laser-focus on revenues and profits, however, I’m afraid we may have seen the best of WebMD’s days behind us.
For further information
Read more from the LA Times: KKR’s Internet Brands plans to buy WebMD in a $2.8-billion deal