Interactions between Health Searchers and Search Engines

11 Dec 2017  ·  Philipp George, White Ryen W. ·

The Web is an important resource for understanding and diagnosing medical conditions. Based on exposure to online content, people may develop undue health concerns, believing that common and benign symptoms are explained by serious illnesses. In this paper, we investigate potential strategies to mine queries and searcher histories for clues that could help search engines choose the most appropriate information to present in response to exploratory medical queries. To do this, we performed a longitudinal study of health search behavior using the logs of a popular search engine. We found that query variations which might appear innocuous (e.g. "bad headache" vs "severe headache") may hold valuable information about the searcher which could be used by search engines to improve performance. Furthermore, we investigated how medically concerned users respond differently to search engine result pages (SERPs) and find that their disposition for clicking on concerning pages is pronounced, potentially leading to a self-reinforcement of concern. Finally, we studied to which degree variations in the SERP impact future search and real-world health-seeking behavior and obtained some surprising results (e.g., viewing concerning pages may lead to a short-term reduction of real-world health seeking).

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