When you feel sick and you don't know why, what do you do? Some people might visit WebMD, only to overreact to their potential-but-unlikely life-threatening diseases. Others might visit their doctor or wait in a hospital ward and wait for hours to be seen, sitting among other people sicker that are than they are. And they're contagious, no less.
Instead of stressing yourself with these options, Google wants you to visit its site and simply search what you're feeling. On Monday, Google added health data to its search terms, letting users enter their symptoms directly into Google's search bar, which returns a list of potential causes directly on the front page.
Every day, people search on Google for health information, said Roni Zeiger, Google's chief health strategist. Many of these searches relate to symptoms they or their loved ones may be experiencing. You might be trying to understand why you've had a headache every morning for a week or why your child has a tummy ache all of a sudden. 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.
Google searching words like headache will return definitions for the most likely health conditions affecting you, such as migraine or tension headache. Each potential cause also lists a brief description to the right of it, which are all drawn from site like Wikipedia and the National Institutes of Health's website.
The list is generated by our algorithms that analyze data from pages across the web and surface the health conditions that appear to be related to your search, Zeiger said.
Google's algorithms collect what's written on the Internet about the symptoms you searched, but Google will be the first to admit that the system isn't perfect. While AdWords won't affect the new results, Google is restraining itself on when to trigger these results. For example, Google will return potential causes for chest pain, but doesn't return anything special for heart attack. Furthermore, the entire platform is reliant on math instead of individual advice.
The list is not authored by doctors and of course is not advice from medical experts, Zeiger said.
However, Google's new search data hopes to help those users who continually use the Internet to look up health-related information. The Pew Internet & American Life Project released in 2010 revealed that 66 percent of all Internet users have looked online for information about a specific medical issue, while 55 percent have looked online to learn about a certain medical treatment or procedure, 44 percent have used it to look up medical professionals, and 36 percent have used it to look up hospitals and medical facilities. Clearly, health is important to people, and the Internet is often the first place people turn for advice.
We're humbled by the number of people who turn to Google with such important questions, and we are working especially hard to make our search results even more useful for health searches, Zeiger said.
This isn't Google's first foray into health services. In June 2011, Google shuttered Google Health, which hoped to give people access to their personal health and wellness information. Google retired the service because it didn't achieve the widespread adoption the company was hoping for.
In the end, while we weren't able to create the impact we wanted with Google Health, we hope it has raised the visibility of the role of the empowered consumer in their own care, said Aaron Brown, Google Health's senior product manager, in a company blog post. We continue to be strong believers in the role information plays in healthcare and in improving the way people manage their health, and we're always working to improve our search quality for the millions of users who come to Google every day to get answers to their health and wellness queries.
Google solved many of the complicated issues with Google Health in its new service, but despite its convenience, it is unlikely to dethrone the Internet's main hub for health-related woes, WebMD. The site not only collects more information and provides more accurate recommendations based on your gender, weight and age, WebMD also offers a doctor directory to find medical professionals nearby and a medical dictionary to look up any complicated medical terms you may not know. As of February 2011, WebMD was named the leading health site in the U.S., reaching an average of 86.4 million visitors per month.
WebMD has roughly 1,400 employees, a mixture of medical professionals and journalists, who continually write and update health-related articles to give users a deeper insight into various health conditions and diseases. In addition, the site also leverages other Internet health portals like Medscape, eMedicine, RxList and MedicineNet, which offer up-to-date information from healthcare professionals about conditions and pharmaceutical treatments, including generic and brand-name drugs. While Google may provide a quicker platform for looking up what you might be feeling, WebMD's immense library of knowledge is irreplaceable, even if it scares people from time to time.