The Decline of WebMD?

Posted on Oct 17, 2019

Runny nose, headache, congestion? Google your symptoms, and you will probably end up on a WebMD page. Synonymous with online health information, WebMD has been the leader in its field for the past decade, but its rank may no longer be at the very top. An article posted in July, 2019 shows that competitor Healthline beat WebMD in monthly unique visitors for the first time in June, 2019. According to Alison Kanski, "Healthline racked up more than 81.3 million visitors in June, compared with WebMD’s 75.9 million."

This inflection point was inevitable. As a closer look at the data shows that since 2015 to 2017, monthly website traffic had actually decreased 1 million unique visitors and 3 million mobile visitors. This shift occurred despite the fact that WebMD provides more health services than Healthline, including a newly renovated discounted prescription pricing service, and an established community forum for medication reviews.


What is causing WebMD to lose its lead in the consumer medical information space?


Google Search Results 

Like many other websites, WebMD relies on Google's Search Engine to bring in visitors. Using Selenium, I searched and scraped America's top 10 health-related questions people Googled, and recorded whether WebMD or competitor Healthline appeared before the other. 

Highlighted in the figure above, we can see that WebMD (60%) does not have a significant lead above Healthline (40%).  It is also important to note that a second Google Search scrape, searching the Most Googled Health Symptoms in Each State, showed that WebMD (65%) did outperform Healthline (24%).

Discounted prescription coupons

WebMDRX provides users a free discounted prescription service. Users look up a medication and WebMDRX provides them with a coupon to use at the pharmacy; no insurance necessary. This service should increase web traffic as well as allow WebMD to gain more insight on consumer trends on drug pricing. However, a look into WebMD's community forum activity sheds a different light.

Here is an overview of WebMD’s most commonly reviewed drugs as well their prices found on WellRX.

*At the time of web scraping, WebMD’s discounted prescription service was under maintenance and WellRX was used as a replacement.

Brand name medications are capitalized and generics are in all lowercase.


Community forum

Started at around 2007, WebMD had one of the largest and active medication review forums online. However, a look at the community forum's activity levels between WebMD and competitor shows has overtaken WebMD in recent years. 

As shown in the graph above, WebMD's forum activity has been steadily decreasing since its high point of about 20K+ in 2009 and surpassed WebMD's yearly reviews in mid 2014.


While reviewer activity has decreased tremendously, WebMD's reviewer data still provides valuable insight into the online patient demographic. The following infographic illustrates an analysis of the community forum.

What is causing the decrease of visitor numbers?

Additional data would be necessary to definitely determine the exact causes of WebMD's recent decline, but it is likely that WebMD's transition from solely a consumer health information resource to a healthcare network is the cause. In favor of incorporating new services such as discounted prescription coupons, it looks like they are sacrificing the quality of their primary website experience. Whether this pivot in strategy will benefit the company long term still hangs in the air as they look to face declining activity in their community forum and increasing loading speeds as a result. 

Website Loading Speed 

Another cause to the decline in visitors can be resulted from the slow loading speeds in both desktop and mobile devices. In the figure below, it is strongly evident that WebMD loads much more slowly than compared to that of Healthline and

Further research and data collection would be necessary to determine if the recent decline in monthly visitors resulted from the increase loading time, and if the increase in loading time resulted from WebMD's pivot away from being just a medical information company.

*Loading speeds were obtained from pingdom and google as of 12/18/2019.


To regain the lead in the health information space, WebMD's website requires a redesign to a leaner website to meet the current trends in mobile viewing. Starting with the community forum, a redesign could also benefit their appeal to the bring back reviewers. Perhaps incorporating a visualization component to the medication reviews, as well as an updated forum design, could bring back users.

Example Web Application

Created using Dash and deployed with Heroku, here is an example web app could be added to the WebMD site that visualizes the average medication ratings along with lowest price for the most reviewed drugs. Visitors would be able to use the dropdown menu to search a medication or multiple, allowing them to easily compare ratings.

The skills the authors demonstrated here can be learned through taking Data Science with Machine Learning bootcamp with NYC Data Science Academy.

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