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August 15, 2011

Despite Reports of Decline, Health Websites Retain Popularity

By: John Mangano

Are online health websites really experiencing a slowdown in visitation? Contrary to recent survey findings reporting a decline (PDF), comScore shows that overall visitation to health websites has never been stronger. Ever since consumers gained unprecedented access to a wealth of information on the Internet, the demand for health and pharmaceutical information has only grown. Now, as connected devices such as mobile phones and tablets enable users to go online with even greater freedom, online health content is poised for continued growth. To better understand the prevailing trends in this sector over the past few years and where it appears to be headed, comScore analyzed several of the key dynamics in the industry today.

Health Site Audience Grows 60 Percent Over Past Three Years
Over the past three years, U.S. Internet users have shown a steadily increasing trend in visitors to sites in the Health category, which range from general health content sites to branded pharmaceutical sites. The number of total unique visitors accessing these sites on a monthly basis has increased from 86.9 million in June 2008 to 139.1 million in June 2011, representing a 60-percent increase.

Interestingly, the rate of growth in visitors to health properties over the past three years outpaces the growth of the total U.S. Internet audience by more than a factor of 4 (60 percent vs. 13 percent), showing the demand for health information continued to increase at a strong pace.

Even more telling is the growth in audience penetration of Health properties over the past few years. Three years ago, less than half of the total U.S. online population visited health sites. Currently, health sites now reach approximately 2 out of every 3 Americans going online monthly, an increase in penetration of nearly 20-percentage points since June 2008.

Key Health Domains and Pharmaceutical Sites Sustain Growth in Health Visitation
While this growth can be attributed in large part to the growing use of sites providing general health information, it’s important to note that it has also been bolstered by visitation to health content domains for major therapeutic areas (i.e. WebMD Depression, Healthline ED, etc.) and pharmaceutical product sites. Over the past three years, targeted health content sites have seen relatively consistent audience levels, even when considering seasonal traffic changes. Yet, a quick look at overall traffic for pharmaceutical sites hints at a slight decline over the past few quarters. Were audiences seeking less pharmaceutical information online over time?

* Content sites include sites in the following therapeutic areas: Acid Reflux/GERD, ADHD, AIDS/HIV, Allergy, Alzheimer's, Asthma, Bipolar, Bipolar Depression, Birth Control, Breast cancer, Cardio, Cholesterol, Cold/Flu, Contraception, COPD, CPG, Depression, Diabetes, Erectile Dysfunction, Fertility, Fibromyalgia, Hepatitis, HPV, Hypertension (HBP), Insomnia, OAB, Oncology, Osteoarthritis, Osteoporosis, and Rheumatoid Arthritis

This apparent decline actually has a fairly reasonable explanation: the launch of Google’s OneBox for Health among search results. In 2010, Google began taking the first unpaid search result listing on pharmaceutical searches to link to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) pages on the medications in question., as illustrated below:

This Google practice redirected a significant amount of traffic that would have once gone to main pharmaceutical sites, causing a decline in search-referred visitation. The chart below illustrates how NIH.gov’s share of visitation from organic search referrals increased from less than 1 percent of clicks to 4.5 percent of clicks after the Google OneBox launched, coinciding with a decline in clicks to branded pharmaceutical sites. Yet it is important to note that any resulting traffic still involved exposure to branded pharmaceuticals – just not on the branded pharmaceutical sites themselves.

This leads us to another key metric to consider when studying the growth in online health visitation – the volume of overall traffic brought to Health properties from web searches. An analysis of these traffic patterns over the past year shows an increase in the volume of search-referred traffic to Health properties, indicating no shortage of demand for health information from search queries. So despite the impact of Google OneBox on visitation to branded pharmaceutical sites, it would be incorrect to assume that the reason for such declines is a lack of consumer demand.

Mobile Access to Health Information Increases Prospects for Growth
Looking to the future of online health content, it is important to understand how the mobile channel is beginning to play an important role. In the three month average period ending June 2011, 13.1 million mobile subscribers in the U.S. reported accessing health information at least once in the previous month, a sizeable increase of 64 percent from a year ago.

A look at how these users accessed their information is also telling, as nearly two-thirds of them used browsers instead of apps to find health information. But while app usage accounts for less overall activity, the growth in the use of health apps outpaces the growth in visitation to health sites via browser (107 percent vs. 84 percent). As smartphone adoption continues to steadily increase, it’s possible that the use of apps will keep on growing at a faster rate over the next few years. What we’re seeing provides a glimpse into a future where connected devices could be increasingly valuable access points for audiences seeking health information.

At the end of the day, these trends we’re seeing from comScore data show the demand for online health information to be far from waning and the prospect for sustained health visitation to be strong. Consumers have never before had as much ability to find health information to inform their health care decisions as they do now, and with the proliferation of connected devices enabling greater access and constant connectivity, it is only likely that the use of online health sources to engage with health information will continue to grow.

Tags: Health, Pharma, Web Traffic