Searching for medical information on Google is a uniquely terrifying experience. You never know how reliable anything you find is, but along the way you manage to convince yourself you have everything from dengue fever to diphtheria. As a self-diagnosis tool the internet ranks somewhere between a ouija board and asking grandma.
Google has apparently decided to change that—or at least, take one major step in the right direction. That’s the idea behind a new use of the knowledge graph which is already appearing in search results.
Doctor-Approved Knowledge Panel
Under the new feature, search results for a variety of health terms will be accompanied by a sidebar (the “knowledge panel” on traditional searches) or inset (the “info card” on mobile results) that contains accurate, quick information about the condition.
These new knowledge panels include a quick summary of the condition and then links to more detailed information on its causes, symptoms, and treatment as well as any relevant tests you can take to determine if you have it.
So far, this sounds no different than any other knowledge panel. If you google a city, for example, you get a panel with basic facts like its population and elevation. Google a famous musician and you’ll see their head shot and a list of upcoming concerts. The symptoms of bursitis aren’t any different, right?
But actually, medical information is very different. That’s because Google doesn’t want to accidentally provide any misinformation—and isn’t relying on whatever it can scrape from the web. If Wikipedia displays the wrong population for Mexico City, for instance, Google’s knowledge panel will get it wrong too. And an upcoming Tori Amos concert may still appear in the sidebar even if it’s already sold out. Those aren’t life-or-death questions, and Google doesn’t vet them for accuracy.
For medical information, Google isn’t taking that chance. Instead, they’ve gone to MD’s and the Mayo Clinic to verify and fact-check each of their medical knowledge cards before rolling them out. An average of 11 doctors has reviewed each fact presented. As Google says:
“All of the gathered facts represent real-life clinical knowledge from these doctors and high-quality medical sources across the web, and the information has been checked by medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.”
That’s the first time to my knowledge that Google has created new, original content for its sidebars and had it professionally fact-checked rather than just relying on whatever is on the web.
Cards have been created for 400 conditions. Google is quick to point out that they aren’t meant to diagnose conditions and are no replacement for seeing a doctor. Instead, the search engine hopes it will help guide searchers toward more reliable information and help them distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy websites.
The implications of this are unclear. As far as making medical information more accurate, savvy users already go straight to trustworthy websites like WebMD, the Mayo Clinic or the NIHS. But not everybody is that discerning, especially if they’re in pain and worried. Google is probably right that putting doctor-reviewed information right in the SERPs will help steer some people away from bunk medical advice. (A look at the comments on any popular Youtube video will tell you why crowdsourcing your diagnosis is not a good idea.)
From an industry perspective, the implications are startling. Google is often accused of taking traffic away from publishers by showing information from their sites right in the search results. Normally, they can defend themselves by saying that the information was publicly available, that they used only a snippet, and that they linked to the source. In this case, however, Google is creating its own original content which essentially competes with sites in the search results—such as medical websites and individual doctor practices. There’s no doubt those sites will get less traffic relating to these conditions. Indeed, at bottom Google is intentionally taking their traffic because it can’t confirm how accurate they are.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it helps people who are sick, but it does signal a substantial change in Google’s role—one that could easily creep to other search topics.
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