Measuring the visibility of health scare studies in the UK media

newspaper-logosSometimes you catch glimpse of one too many similar news stories within a fairly small subject area, and think that behind the scenes there must be some blanket policy to push through everything and anything that’s relevant with little regard for contradiction or accuracy.

Health is an important topic to most individuals, a fact known and seized upon by the popular media. Consumers are obsessed with thinking they know what is good for them and what will cause them harm, because that of course is the secret to why we’re living so long, and why we take such good care of ourselves. Being able to opine “you shouldn’t do that, it’s bad for you” is part of the know-it-all’s core skillset. But where do these speculations typically come from?


One way to tap into the erudite health expert’s knowledge base is to analyse the search positioning of major UK newspapers for a group of health terms. By selecting a fairly long list of nouns and verbs, and appending ‘causing cancer’, we can track these across the most-read (but least peer-reviewed and scientifically scrutinised) popular media outlets.

The list I’ve selected is fairly random, with a few completely random terms thrown in. These include some fruits (apples causing cancer, bananas causing cancer, etc), some cosmetics (deoderant causing cancer, lipstick causing cancer, etc), lots of foods (soup, honey, etc), as well as the wildcards that I didn’t expect to really position (climate change, fibre, crayons, shaving, marriage, etc). The media outlets I selected were mainly the core national newspapers, based on readership, with the BBC news website also thrown in. These were put into our new visibility tools, which quickly and effortlessly aggregate the positioning of websites over large groups of terms.


The visibility we are measuring is of a similar nature to Figure 1 below. We take the list of terms and measure where the newspapers appear:

An example of a major newspaper positioning for a cancer causing term

Fig 1: An example of a major newspaper positioning for a cancer causing term


Our new visibility tools aggregate these positions across long lists of terms on multiple search engines. The result is a graph such as the one below, which over time shows the trends and visibility of lists of sites in the SERPs. These can be quickly filtered down by search engine, group of terms, and groups of sites, to gain quick insight over vast amounts of data.

The visibility of major newspapers in the SERPs, on a long list of cancer causing terms

The visibility of major UK publications on a long list of search terms relating to cancer links

Fig 2: The visibility of major UK publications on a long list of search terms relating to cancer links

The results provide the following conclusions:

  • There’s a comprehensive victory for the Daily Mail, who manage to position for every single term in the list of 52 selected
  • The Times do well to rank bottom of the list, showing perhaps their core subscribers wouldn’t be too enamored with an unknown ‘expert’ suggesting that the ‘internet’ causes cancer
  • It’s impressive that the Daily Mail (along with several others) are gaining in rankings, perhaps with the aim of one day becoming the definitive source of pseudo-science and sensationalism
  • The Sun and The Mirror position badly for the high level intellectual terms such as baldness causing cancer and electricity causing cancer, suggesting that their health sections are in need of aggressive expansion. Though with The Mirror doing well to slot ‘celebrity gossip’ into their meta and title tags, their focus of resources may be shifted elsewhere. A similar experiment with the formula of <person who has few discernible reasons to be famous> + <scandal/affair/plastic surgery> may see these newspapers shine

Contradictory advice

Lastly, though not part of the original visibility analysis, it’s always good to see some conflicting advise being given to the popular consumer. The search below indicates that at least for now, it’s impossible to know if you can buy bread for your family without endangering their wellbeing.



Fig 3: Unclear consumer advice from the popular press