Nevermind complicated algorithms and personalized content streams according to past search patterns and the like - Google has, for only the second time in its history, decided to offer specific results, a sort of guidance, in response to select search terms.
When users search for phrases such as "ways to commit suicide" or "suicidal thoughts", they now see the toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at the top of their results. We have to wonder - when will Google advise users buying cigarettes to seek help too?
The New York Times quotes Dr. Roni Zeiger, the chief health stategist for Google, as saying that the idea came from a Google user.
"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," Dr. Zeiger said. "Now when you search for poison control or similar queries, we make it straightforward to find the number for poison control."
So can we be as callous here as to wonder where else the company might take this? Can anyone really take issue with a company offering the phone number of a suicide prevention hotline to those looking up phrases like "I want to die"?
Perhaps this could be a new direction - rather than simply offering results directly related to a user's query, or looking to personalize content by looking at what friends and peers are looking at, or even looking at a users history, Google could offer up a Devil's Advocate set of results on every query. Looking for a brand new SUV? While you're at it, why not consider this beautiful, used bicycle that will help save the environment? Cheap cigarettes? Didn't you mean Nicorette gum? McDonalds? Why yes, we do have a few diet programs and some instructions on healthy eating.
In reality, we think that this could be a great compliment to all those apps and engines out there that simply look to show you exactly what you're looking for before you ever even get to searching. Let's use the web to challenge ideas, not simply echo them. As long as results are clearly identified, is there a problem?
While this is a loaded area to look at (questioning Google's action can be made to seem as if it were a promotion of suicide) we still think there are interesting implications to its actions that should be considered. Do we want Google to simply act as a firehose of data or can we expect it to tailor its results to do better for the world? And who's version of better will it go by if we do? What do you think?