Searching Your Symptoms: Three Things You Should Know

Internet by The Noun Project, Public Domain

We all search our symptoms. We want to understand what’s happening to our health and figure out what the next steps are. Rest and fluids? A trip to the doctor’s office? There’s lots of debate on the implications of this common practice, so I’ve singled out three things that the literature tells us to be very careful of when searching while sick

  1. There’s a decent chance the internet will misdiagnose you. A recent article published suggests that only 14% of websites gave a correct diagnosis after searching Google, Bing and Ask for common diagnoses. The majority of websites included the correct diagnosis as a potential culprit, but few singled out the correct condition.
  2. Your searches are personalized to YOU. Also known as the Filter Bubble, many of the major search engines track what you’ve searched and tailor your search results to you. In other words, two people could search the same symptoms but get different answers. We know that the major search engines do this, but I don’t think anyone knows the extent of it. Last November I was in a classroom with about 20 students who conducted an identical search in Google and all received nearly identical results, with the exception of users who visit primarily websites written in a different language (their results were all in their preferred language). Take this little “experiment” with a grain of salt, of course.
  3. Your searches might be used for secondary research. This one isn’t necessarily bad, just something we should to be aware of. Google Flu calculates flu trends by keeping track of the number of people who search the flu and all it’s flu-like symptoms. What does this mean for you? Google is keeping track of what you are searching and using that data for secondary purposes, in this case Google Flu.

Next time you do a bit of web-sleuthing and Google your symptoms, keep in mind that your results are likely biased and imperfect!

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