Google Cracks Down on Ads for Unproven Medical Claims—And You Can Help

search engine to restrict ads for unproven medical treatments and techniques

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Google has added a new policy to block ads for unproven medical techniques, according to their Support page. Exaggerated, half-true miracle cures have always popped up from pseudo-scientific scammers. Knowing how to spot them can save you money—and cost them sales.

Assortment of pills on black table
Pseudo-scientific scammers and their unsubstantiated advertising have always existed. Photo by Tibor Duris / Shutterstock

According to the Google Support page, Google believes the “digital ads ecosystem” can only work if their ads are safe and trustworthy. “We know that important medical discoveries often start as unproven ideas—and we believe that monitored, regulated clinical trials are the most reliable way to test and prove important medical advances,” the page reads. “At the same time, we have seen a rise in bad actors attempting to take advantage of individuals by offering untested, deceptive treatments. Often times, these treatments can lead to dangerous health outcomes and we feel they have no place on our platforms.” You can do your part by knowing how to spot fakes and keeping your money out of their hands.

Common Cents

During the course of our lives, we develop a sense of when someone is trying to take advantage of us, especially in business or sales. You’ve probably heard the old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” That may be a well-worn phrase, but in this instance, it’s gotten so much use because it’s true.

There have been wonderful and life-saving medical advancements over the years, and sometimes they happen in a surprisingly short amount of time. However, there are also plenty of frauds. More often than not, anyone promising either a miracle cure for an ailment, a treatment that sounds decades further than our current knowledge of an illness, or “a remedy that the pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know about” should raise a red flag. There’s no reason to panic, but you may want to think twice before reaching for your wallet.

“There is no substitute for just thinking critically,” said Dr. Steven Novella, Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. “Also, don’t trust testimonials, because they’re just anecdotes. As we say, the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data. The reason why sites are using testimonials to support their claims is because they don’t have the scientific evidence that reliably backs them up.”

Stepping Stones to Acquiring Reliable Data

“Basic science research [is] what’s done in test tubes and Petri dishes to try to understand the basic mechanisms of how cells work and how things function,” Dr. Novella said. “They can’t be used to make ultimate clinical claims about what’s safe and effective, but it does help point the way towards clinical research.”

Another step towards clinical research is animal testing, which, according to Dr. Novella, is done when the basic science of a claim looks promising. He said that animal testing isn’t quite the same as human testing, since obviously our genes are different from rats and guinea pigs, but animal testing puts a tentative medicine to work in a complex biological system, which is a big step up from the Petri dish.

Next, clinical research itself consists of observational research and experimental research. “With observational research, we’re just looking at what’s happening out there in the real world—we’re looking for correlations,” Dr. Novella said. “We can’t control all the variables, so when we find a correlation, we can’t know what the cause and effect is. But, if we see a correlation holding up, no matter how we look at it, we can still come to reliable conclusions.”

He added that experimental research is the best kind of research with human testing, because scientists can control all the variables and focus on the variable they’re interested in, in hopes of proving causation between two factors. “All of this leads to the most reliable kind of information for clinical claims,” he said. “That is definitive, large, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies where as many variables as possible are controlled.”

Self-proclaimed healers and experts who have not spent years developing the science behind their medical claims, using the processes that Dr. Novella described, should probably stay out of your medicine cabinets—and away from ads on Google.

Dr. Steven Novella

Dr. Steven Novella contributed to this article. Dr. Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University.