Google Insights for Search + Google Diagnosing = The New Public Health Department?

Google’s new Insights for Search service is designed to provide marketers better information on search terms over time and across geographical areas. According to The New York Times (Google’s New Tool Is Meant For Marketers):

The tool is aimed primarily at marketers, who may use it to devise and track advertising campaigns. A car company, for instance, could experiment with different versions of a television ad in Cleveland and Columbus, and check the number of resulting searches in each city to see which one is more effective. Or it could use the data to find out where users are searching most actively for “fuel efficiency” and aim ads for a gas-sipping vehicle there.

It seems pretty clear that there will be implications for health care, too, especially public health. As I’ve described, people often enter their symptoms into Google in the hopes of turning up the diagnosis for an ailment. That means it should be possible to track the spread of diseases as people try to diagnose themselves. Here are a couple of hypothetical examples:

  • Tracking the keywords abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting to see where gastroenteritis is emerging
  • Tracking the source of foodborne illnesses (like the recent tomato/jalapeno pepper salmonella scare) by seeing how many people enter salmonella symptoms along with specific foods

Relying on Google may seem a bit weak, until you consider how outbreaks of illness are tracked now. Cold and flu outbreaks are tracked by looking at sales of over the counter cough and cold medications and reports from hospital emergency rooms. Tracking down the source of the salmonella outbreak involved looking at individual cases and asking people what they ate.

Meanwhile, Google could provide the information a lot faster and in a more segmented manner. Only a small percentage of people with the flu or salmonella poisoning are likely to report it or seek hospital care, but a lot use Google. At a minimum it makes sense to consider adding the Google data to complement what’s out there today. It will take a somewhat different tool to mine the data for public health, but clearly Google has the underlying information.

There are dark sides to this, especially when the analysis moves to the individual searcher/patient level. For example, I can imagine the government quarantining people who’ve identified themselves as being contagious, and we’ve already noted the possibility of Google figuring out you have cancer before you’ve been formally diagnosed.

August 6, 2008

One thought on “Google Insights for Search + Google Diagnosing = The New Public Health Department?”

  1. Nice bog you have here. I pretty much lurk the internet when I’m bored and read all I can about the organic lifestyle, but I really liked you view on things. I’ll bookmark the site and subscribe to the feed!

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