Growing Health Network Launches New Tools, Ad Vehicles

Health-related search specialist has introduced a semantic search capability for medical treatments that should help users pinpoint symptoms, treatments and the right doctor more quickly, but may be of even more help to advertisers trying to target their ads.

Capabilities announced last week include Treatment Search, which aggregates information on diagnostic tests, surgical procedures, medical interventions, and nonmedical treatments such as nutrition supplements or exercises; and Doc Search, which helps users find local doctors who treat specific conditions.

While the Internet is rife with doctor-finder sites, Healthline’s has an unusually efficient interface that allows searching not only by the usual proximity and specialty, but also by which hospital the physician is affiliated with and how many years of experience he or she has.

Healthline has a destination site of its own that draws about 5 million unique visitors a month, according to comScore, and it also licenses its various search tools to about 30 other sites, such as AOL Health and iVillage. Healthline claims a combined monthly reach of close to 40 million unique visitors for the content that it provides.

Last year it gathered 18 of those sites, including AOL Health, iVillage, HealthGrades, Britannica Online, and U.S. News and World Report, into an ad network, called the Healthline Media Network, which allows advertisers to serve messages based on contextual clues relating to conditions, treatments, and location. The company calls its targeting technology HealthSTAT, and says it allows advertisers to deliver ads against specific health content in real time, by matching them conceptually rather than simply through keywords. For example, a search for “stuffy nose, scratchy throat” might result in ads for products to treat rhinitis (the medical name for nose troubles of various kinds).

“We can do a nice contextual match that’s worth more to the advertiser” than the random placements that often take up unsold inventory, said Healthline CEO West Shell.

Shell says the recent FDA crackdown on paid-search ads run by pharmaceutical companies has boosted the company’s business.

“We saw an immediate shift from search dollars into display advertising,” he said. The company is also developing new cost-per-click ad strategies for drugmakers to address the issues that the FDA has raised.

It’s debatable whether semantic search capability can add enough value to make the average consumer seek out Healthline or its partners over a favorite general search engine. “It seems like semantic search is the fad du jour, and they’re taking advantage of that,” says Jim Nail, chief marketing officer at social media consultant TMS/Cymfony. “But it’s hard to see that it provides better results than going to Google.” Semantic search can be effective in areas where the desired information isn’t already well organized, but Nail says diagnosis and treatment information rarely falls into that fuzzy category.

Healthline’s Shell says health-related searching is trickier than it looks, and keyword-based algorithms like Google’s aren’t efficient enough to get users quickly to the most contextually relevant information. “Google can give you a massive number of possibilities, but it doesn’t know what everything means and how it’s related.” Healthline has a proprietary taxonomy that Shell claims took years to develop and has been fully vetted by medical informatics specialists. Moreover, rather than searching the entire Web, Healthline confines its searches to about 250,000 sites that it has vetted for reliability.

Headquartered in San Francisco, privately held Healthline has an array of backers in the publishing, health insurance, and venture capital fields. They include Aetna, GE/NBCU’s Peacock Equity Fund, JHK Investments, Kaiser Permanente, Reed Elsevier, and U.S. News & World Report.

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