Conversational AI

Why Googling Symptoms is a Bad Idea

May 10, 2021

Why Googling Symptoms is a Bad Idea

And How AI Symptom Checker Can Fix It

It’s good to know what to do for abdominal cramps, headaches, or nasal congestion. Searching on Google for medical information can guide users to the right decision if they know their condition. However, self-diagnosis through the search engines can make users think that a simple headache is a symptom of a brain tumor, nasal congestion is a sinus infection, and an abdominal cramp is appendicitis or pancreatitis, increasing anxiety.

There’s also a good chance that the information that users came across is wrong or misleading. The problem is that the ranking factors of Google often prioritize articles that are well-optimized over credible and reliable sources. Trying to locate trustworthy sources can be challenging given Google’s ranking algorithms and the wealth of information available. A symptom checker app with AI capabilities is a better solution for preliminary assessment and decision support.

How Googling Increases Anxiety

Self-diagnosis through search engines may lead to excessive worrying and anxiety, especially in people with no medical training. Research literature has associated anxiety and cyberchondria with problematic internet searching for medical information.

A study reviewed in Comprehensive Psychiatry shows that googling symptoms results in an escalation of concerns and excessive worrying about symptoms. The study involved 515 participants and their search experiences and found that 20 percent of respondents experienced an escalation of concerns. Behavioral problems occurred in 40 percent of participants, including more frequent consultations with medical specialists and physicians, more page visits, and increased internet searches.

How Search Engine Optimization Strategies Could Mislead the Online User

Google’s AI algorithms often prioritize content optimized for the search engines and would thus rank high in SERPs. Additionally, the Web uses a frequency model, and the topics repeatedly searched get pushed to the top of Google. Director of the RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre, Mary Aiken, explains that if everybody googling for headache just searched under hangover or migraine, “then those results would be served to everyone else.” When more people search for ‘brain tumor’, related content is more likely to appear in the results. (Irish Examiner)

Research confirms the fact that the ranking algorithms prioritize content based on the frequency of searching. A longitudinal study that examined some 40 million medical queries found a high rate of linkage of rare and severe conditions to common symptoms.

People tend to start a search with a common symptom such as a simple headache. Then they will escalate their browsing process and start searching for information about migraine and brain tumors, and Google’s algorithms will be serving them in the results. The study also included a term, co-occurrence analysis, for content on websites of the 100 search results.

The research shows a probability of 68% that headache is linked to tension, 28% with caffeine withdrawal, and 3% with a brain tumor. In reality, the incidence of a brain tumor in the U.S. is much lower and at around 0.0116%. Likewise, there is a probability of 28% that chest pain is associated with ingestion, 57% with heartburn, and 15% with a heart attack.

Google Rankings Influence Search Behavior

A study of billions of search results by Sistrix reveals that 28.5% of users click on the first organic result rendered in Google. The average CTR falls quickly beyond position 1, with the second and third positions having an average click-through rate of 15% and 11%, respectively. The tenth position in Google has a click-through rate of just 2.5%. Websites that rank high in SERPs get the most traffic even though they might not be the most reliable or trustworthy sources.

Symptom Checkers as an Alternative to Googling Symptoms

A symptom checker app is a better alternative to self-diagnosis through search engines. Advanced diagnostic programs incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities to provide users with possible causes of their symptoms. Integrated with a health system’s care points, a symptom checker can assess various medical symptoms and use AI to navigate patients to the right level of care.

Unlike search engine self-diagnosis, symptom checkers take the guesswork out of the equation and help patients decide on the extent of urgency with which they should seek care. By assessing prioritization, AI-care navigation solutions enable users to connect with the most appropriate care venues. On the one hand, symptom checkers identify patients who require urgent attention and escalate them to ER or Urgent Care. On the other, the same level of care may not be needed for mild symptoms and non-urgent conditions, preventing unnecessary trips to the ER.

Key Takeaways

Googling for a diagnosis is commonplace, but using search engines as a diagnostic aid can be a horrible idea. Google’s search algorithms and ranking system use a probability model that tends to serve search results that are clicked more often. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the search rankings prioritize the most comprehensive, reliable, and accurate sources.

A symptom checker app can be a better alternative to self-diagnosis, especially advanced programs incorporating AI and NLP capabilities. End-users benefit from superior symptom checking, enhanced decision support, and consistent experience.

Digital Front Door® solutions navigate patients through the entire digital journey to enjoy a streamlined experience, improved patient outcomes, and higher quality care. Given that their diagnostic accuracy is constantly improving, AI symptom checkers can reshape the relationship between healthcare providers, physicians, patients, and the health system.


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