We’ve all been there – after some unexplained symptoms appear, it’s easier to pull up Google on your phone than it is to go see your GP. The thing about Dr Google is, though, that a regular tension headache can easily be linked to the most alarming medical conditions.
It happens so easily. One minute you’re typing your symptoms into Google, just to get some peace of mind, and next thing you know you’re convinced your headache is from a brain tumour. In fact, this is so common that it’s become a bit of a joke in the medical community – if you google a symptom (ANY symptom), you’ll always be told you have cancer.
So, how does the Google machine do this and why do we fall for it every time?
Why you shouldn’t Google health symptoms
Search engines have revolutionised our world by bringing information to our fingertips, which is obviously incredible. While they may be great tools for research on some topics, medical symptoms aren’t one of them.
The main reason not to Google your symptoms is that it won’t give you a diagnosis. Studies have shown Dr Google is wrong more often than not, and anecdotes from the medical community tell a story of Google making people feel more anxious, rather than relieved. A Google search result is not an official diagnosis by a doctor, so the uncertainty over your condition will still linger.
Google-induced health anxiety is real. So real, that a specific word has been coined for it – cyberchondria. The term is a play on the word hypochondria – a term referring to excessive anxiety over health.
Google doesn’t see you or hear you, and it doesn’t know your medical history or other symptoms.
What’s more, anyone can publish anything on the internet. That’s what makes the internet both so great and so dangerous at the same time. There’s lots of information on Google, but there’s no one reviewing its accuracy. Wikipedia, the most common source to research medical diagnoses, can be edited by anyone.
Unfortunately, some websites may even prey on people’s health anxiety to sell bogus treatments.
How does Google decide what results to show then, you ask? We’ll explain it in a nutshell.
How search engines work – algorithm 101
The complex Google algorithm tries to find the most relevant results to a search term based on a few different factors.
While search engines such as Google keep their algorithms secret, they do reveal what they’re looking for in their webmaster guidelines.
Things such as user behaviour, technical elements of web design, backlinks and keywords all affect a website’s likelihood of ranking in the Google search results. You may have noticed, credence is not part of the criteria!
And how does this all link to Googling your symptoms? Well, not only may the information you find on Google not be published by a medical expert, it may be completely inaccurate as well.
The one-in-a-million comment that presents the worst-case health outcome will probably gain more engagement and attention online than a more harmless example. This, in turn, will boost its visibility on search. That’s why medical horror stories come up before other, more mundane explanations.
To sum it up, Google tries to find what it thinks will be the most relevant results to your search, but there is no discernment of the information it presents.
PSA: Please speak with your GP
Here’s a rule of thumb to go by: if it worries you enough to Google it, you should probably tell your doctor about it.
Catastrophising articles may give you anxiety, or the opposite – sources that downplay your symptoms may delay you getting necessary medical help. Neither one of these options is good for your physical or mental health.
Doctors spend years at university for good reason. Medicine is a tricky business, but the years of training help doctors assess the full situation with all its nuances. They use their wealth of knowledge to decide which possibilities to discount and which ones to consider.
It’s not all bad
We don’t want to be all doom and gloom here. The chances are, you’ll still Google your symptoms the next time something pops up – we all do. So, we’re not saying you shouldn’t Google health stuff at all, we’re just saying you need to take the results with a massive grain of salt. And go see a doctor, too!
It’s not wrong to educate yourself on a health topic, especially one that you’ve been diagnosed with previously. It can help you bring some relevant questions to the table when discussing the situation with your doctor.
At the end of the day, the reason we Google our symptoms is to have peace of mind. And, the only way to truly get peace of mind is to step away from Dr Google and seek help from a medical professional.
Google can be a starting point, but not a final answer.
As a recap, here’s what to keep in mind when Googling your symptoms:
- Not all search results are credible sources – anyone can publish online
- Search engine algorithms don’t review their results’ credibility
- Don’t self-diagnose – neither you nor the people on the internet have the nuanced knowledge of a trained doctor