The Search Engine Will See You Now

December 8th, 2008 | Sources: BBC, NY Times


The health-related Web search is so much a part of modern life, it’s become possible to identify flu outbreaks by observing zip-code specific search behavior on terms like muscle aches, fever and sore throat.

It’s all good so long as searchers know that the rank order of their results has no clinical meaning.

Which means it’s not all good because lots of folks believe the rank order reflects something about disease likelihood and incidence… as if the search engine were creating a differential diagnosis like Marcus Welby or something.

For example, a search on ‘causes of headache’ might generate a list topped by ‘brain tumor,’ but brain tumors are not a common cause of headache.

Caffeine withdrawal, too much alcohol, sinus conditions and the need for a good eye exam are way more common and less deadly, but for reasons from the commercial to the algorithmic, they don’t appear first.

Nevertheless, lots of people begin secondary searches on brain tumors which begets hours of tense preoccupation with scary irrelevancies and pretty soon they’re searching ways to get their affairs in order.

The word describing this phenomenon is ‘Cyberchondria,’ and Microsoft’s Eric Horvitz and Ryen White just released a study of the matter.

More than half the participants in their study said that search queries related to serious illnesses had interfered with their routine daily activities at least one time during the study, and search escalations regarding dire diagnoses sometimes continued for days, weeks or even months after the initial search.

You have been warned.



  1. Krista | 11/12/08

    Sadly, these days doctors and physicians have to actually tell their patients not to do research online – unless they have already been diagnosed. And even then, it’s sketchy. A good friend of mine just went through a variety of medical tests to diagnose his illness (still undiagnosed, with various symptoms – lethargic, jaundice, digestive issues) and his doctors told him over and over again to avoid the internet. That, of course, peaked his curiosity, so he did some online research. Returned a loooong list of possibilities, from bone marrow cancer to iron deficiency, and everything in between. It’s scary that someone might try to diagnose their illness online – and then possible try to treat it on their own. That said, I’m guilty of it too. Even though I know I shouldn’t, I’ve googled my symptoms before!

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