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Monday, April 22, 2024

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Google Trying To Help Suicidal Searchers

In response to a mom’s suggestion, Google has tweaked its search results to offer help for searchers in dire circumstances. Do a search for [ways to commit suicide], and you’ll see an emergency phone number listed above the regular search results.


Since last Wednesday, the New York Times reports, Google has been showing the toll-free number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for this query. It also shows up for “how to commit suicide,” but not for “should i commit suicide.”

These queries are cases where Google’s algorithm may be too good; in the image above, the first three organic results below the phone number all answer the query perhaps too well (although the second article isn’t as direct as the first and third).

A similar tweak has also been in place for a few months on a search for [poison control] and similar queries.


Google’s response here is to show the toll-free number of the American Association of Poison Control Centers. It was this kind of query that pushed Google to tweak its search results. Dr. Roni Zeiger, a product manager at Google Health, told the Times, “A mother wrote in a suggestion to us — her daughter had swallowed something that she thought was dangerous, and she had a hard time finding poison control…That got us thinking.”

The response to queries like “poison control” are a natural extension of Google’s “one box” product — showing the Poison Control Center phone number matches the query and serves the searcher. But you could argue that Google isn’t answering its users’ query by providing a suicide prevention number on queries like “ways to commit suicide.” It’s a cold-hearted argument, and not one I’m willing to make, but I can’t think of any other occasion in which Google willingly shows the opposite of what the searcher wanted.

In any case, Zeiger tells the Times that the company is “starting relatively conservatively” in selecting queries to respond to in this way — a statement that sounds like more answers like this may be on the way.

Postscript: Danny Sullivan points me toward this compelling 2003 article in which a Wired reporter writes about the stream of queries that Google sees every day, and the employee whose job is (was?) to keep an eye on that stream. The end of that article (on page 2 if you click) involves a suicide-related query, which leads the Google employee to indicate that he’ll “attach” the right sites if Google doesn’t help answer the searcher’s question. (Google later clarified to say they didn’t mean a manual “attach”-ing of the right sites, but rather an algorithmic tweak. This was in the days when Google was very hesitant to reveal whether or not there was manual editing of rankings going on.)

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