Cyberchondria: When Web Search Makes You Sick(er)

Those muscle twitches you get probably aren’t a sign that you have ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). But if you’re using search engines to diagnose what ails you, there’s a chance you’ll come to that conclusion.

In a new paper, Microsoft investigates cyberchondria: “… the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.”

Microsoft researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz studied a 40-million page sample of search results (from Live Search) and surveyed 500 Microsoft employees about how they search for health information. They found that health search on the web sometimes makes our problems worse, in the form of heightened anxiety that can disrupt other aspects of normal, daily life. In other words, the information we learn from search engines often adds stress to whatever our current health problem might be.

“…the unreliability of Web sources and the content of Web search engine result pages contributed to the heightened anxiety of around three in ten survey respondents.

The responses show that search engine result pages, the contents of the pages visited directly from the result pages, and pages visited thereafter, may all contribute to health-related anxiety to different extents.”

One problem, according to the paper, is that web searches for common symptoms sometimes lead to information about serious, rare illnesses. A search for “headache” might lead to information about tension, but could also lead to information about brain tumors, which are extremely rare; a search for “chest pain” can lead to information about heartburn or heart attacks.

The paper puts the burden of responsibility for reducing this escalation of anxiety onto the search engines themselves:

“Search engine architects have a responsibility to ensure that searchers do not experience unnecessary concern generated by the ranking algorithms their engines use. They must be cognizant of the potential problems caused by cyberchondria, and focused on serving medical search results that are reliable, complete, and timely, as well as topically relevant.”

The 32-page research paper is available for download here. There’s also more discussion on Techmeme.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Microsoft: Other | Microsoft: Other Search | Search & Society: General | Search Engines: Health & Medical Search Engines

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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