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Symptom Search with Dr. Google

Posted by | 11:35am on Thursday, March 8, 2012

The placement of the related disease searches on the page is prominent 

In February Google announced a new enhancement to their search results for health symptoms. We have known for a long time that Dr. Google is one of the first places people go to investigate whether a symptom is worth a trip to the doctor to investigate or not. This change in how the results are displayed tries to use the data from the National Institutes of Health, Wikipedia, and others, to determine the most common diagnoses that are associated with their symptom.

“Our data shows that a search for symptoms is often followed by a search for a related condition. To make the process easier, now when you search for a symptom or set of symptoms, you’ll often see a list of possibly related health conditions that you can use to refine your search,” writes Roni Zeiger, MD, Google’s Chief Health Strategist, on their blog.

This change represents Google’s solution to helping people understand what is happening to their health in an on-demand kind of way. The placement of the related disease searches on the page is prominent and almost completely overshadows all the organic listings and ads. The  SEO implications are that since the content is being pushed further down the page, people may visit these suggested symptom pages more than the organic listings.

The impact
This new symptom search feature could have three different implications on patient behavior:

  1. It could help people discover very common life threatening illnesses like heart attacks and strokes faster, motivate them to get them help faster and save lives. I think this is Google’s intention.
  2. It could freak a lot of people out. “OMG, what if I have cancer?”
  3. At the other end of the spectrum, a list of common diagnoses could discourage someone with a rare disorder. What should someone do  if the suggested/common disease diagnoses have already been ruled out after testing? Would the patient keep looking for answers?

Rare doesn’t compute
I have done some searching on the rare diseases that we work with here at Siren Interactive and none of the associated symptoms seem to prompt a diagnosis related to any of them. Maybe Google will change this in the future, but right now rare diseases aren’t really accounted for. See the screen shot below for an example.

Screenshot of new Google symptom search

My conclusion about this new search feature is that Google is very good at processing data in interesting ways but we shouldn’t just trust Dr. Google inherently. It’s a robot after all.

The best advice
If you have an ongoing symptom and don’t find a likely solution by searching online, don’t ignore it. Go talk with your doctor. Likewise, if something unlikely but scary comes up, you may also want to go talk to your doctor. Family doctors should really be the ones to make the diagnosis and they should not make you feel bad about asking if it ends up not being serious. They are also the best people to start the process to identify a rare disease, although many rare diseases are diagnosed by specialists. And you know you have a good doctor if you mention that you were searching for the symptoms on Google and they don’t wrinkle their nose at you in disapproval.

(Image courtesy of  TopRank Blog on Flickr).

About CS Yates

She is responsible for search and analytics for all of the agency’s brands. She has 7 years of experience working with web analytics, organic search optimization and paid search campaigns. Via measurement reports, she is able to provide actionable insights for our clients. She is certified in Google AdWords.

View other posts from CS

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