Google Trying To Help Suicidal Searchers

In response to a mom’s suggestion, Google has tweaked its search results to offer help for searchers in dire circumstances. Do a search for [ways to commit suicide], and you’ll see an emergency phone number listed above the regular search results.

google-suicide

Since last Wednesday, the New York Times reports, Google has been showing the toll-free number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for this query. It also shows up for “how to commit suicide,” but not for “should i commit suicide.”

These queries are cases where Google’s algorithm may be too good; in the image above, the first three organic results below the phone number all answer the query perhaps too well (although the second article isn’t as direct as the first and third).

A similar tweak has also been in place for a few months on a search for [poison control] and similar queries.

poison-control

Google’s response here is to show the toll-free number of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. It was this kind of query that pushed Google to tweak its search results. Dr. Roni Zeiger, a product manager at Google Health, told the Times, “A mother wrote in a suggestion to us — her daughter had swallowed something that she thought was dangerous, and she had a hard time finding poison control…That got us thinking.”

The response to queries like “poison control” are a natural extension of Google’s “one box” product — showing the Poison Control Center phone number matches the query and serves the searcher. But you could argue that Google isn’t answering its users’ query by providing a suicide prevention number on queries like “ways to commit suicide.” It’s a cold-hearted argument, and not one I’m willing to make, but I can’t think of any other occasion in which Google willingly shows the opposite of what the searcher wanted.

In any case, Zeiger tells the Times that the company is “starting relatively conservatively” in selecting queries to respond to in this way — a statement that sounds like more answers like this may be on the way.

Postscript: Danny Sullivan points me toward this compelling 2003 article in which a Wired reporter writes about the stream of queries that Google sees every day, and the employee whose job is (was?) to keep an eye on that stream. The end of that article (on page 2 if you click) involves a suicide-related query, which leads the Google employee to indicate that he’ll “attach” the right sites if Google doesn’t help answer the searcher’s question. (Google later clarified to say they didn’t mean a manual “attach”-ing of the right sites, but rather an algorithmic tweak. This was in the days when Google was very hesitant to reveal whether or not there was manual editing of rankings going on.)

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Health | Google: OneBox, Plus Box & Direct Answers | Top News

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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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  • GemmaT

    Well, you could argue that those searching for “ways to commit suicide” are in fact looking for exactly what Google would be providing: a sign that someone (even a computer-generated response) wants to help them. It’s a smart response to a complicated question.

  • Matthew Cummins

    On google.com.au it also provides an Australian relevant result, and it comes up even for “should I commit suicide”

    The other thing I noticed here is that Google refuses to “guess” what you are typing – I tried (as a test) “should I commit suicide” and once you get to the “s” it stops guessing and makes you type in the full bit and hit enter before getting results – another good little 1% thing. Before the “s” it makes guesses like “myself”, but not suicide. Clearly this is a manual override, but a good one I think.

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