Google is attempting to refine its health-related search by asking users if they're experiencing the symptoms or conditions they're Googling about. Google claims it will use the survey to collect real-world statistics on how potentially sick users use the site, perhaps using the data to craft a more granular health-related search experience. Google's health initiatives regarding swine flu recently attracted a great deal of attention.
is performing a short-term experiment involving its users' health-related
The company, claiming it wants to better refine its
health-search-related processes by "understanding how people search when they're
feeling sick," wants to start differentiating between users searching for
health-related topics purely for research purposes and those searching for
those topics in order to find out more about a personal health issue.
In order to do so, searches for certain health topics will
produce a small dialog box at the bottom of the screen, asking the user if they're
searching because they, or someone they know, are experiencing that particular
health issue. For example, if you search for "headache," Google may ask, "Did
you search because you or someone you know has a headache? Yes/No." Google says the experiment will be limited.
"Rather than make educated guesses about how many users are
searching for because they're sick, we're running this experiment to collect
real statistics," Dr. Roni Zeiger, Google product manager, and Jeremy Ginsberg,
Google software engineer, wrote in a May 13 corporate blog posting. "This is
not a permanent change, but a short-term experiment. A small percentage of
random health-related searches will trigger the poll question." According to Google, data collected in the survey will "be
aggregated across thousands of users" and not associated with e-mail addresses
or personal information. The company also claims that the survey data will not
be used for advertising, but only to improve health-related search results and refine
public health trends based on search queries. That particular statement on Google's corporate blog, it
seems, is a preemptive attempt to head off any anti-privacy claims that critics
whenever the search-engine giant attempts a new data-mining initiative.
Google's health-based efforts have been much in the news
lately. In late April 2009, as the world was temporarily seized by
fears of a massive swine-flu pandemic, Google used its Flu Trends
site to track the spread
of the disease based on peoples' searches for certain keywords. "We found that there is a close relationship between how
many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu
symptoms," the site explained at the time. "Some search queries tend to be
popular exactly when flu season is happening and are therefore good indicators
of flu activity." Google
claimed that Flu Trends could indicate flu activity up to two weeks before its
appearance on other surveillance systems
. Within days of the outbreak,
which killed dozens in Mexico
but had relatively little effect elsewhere, Google had posted a Mexico-centric
version of Flu Trends that followed flu activity across that country. At the time, cooler heads argued that up-to-the-minute data
collection by Google, as well as social-networking sites such as Twitter and
the potential to rapid-fire spread misinformation and panic.