Are Google’s new health results a good thing?

Google announced today that it would be adding comprehensive health information from reliable sources to its “Knowledge Graph.” That’s the set of search results that usually appear in a box to the left of the search results, as a card before the first result, or as an image carousel on top. The ones I’ve seen most commonly are locations with map links, results from current sporting events and Wikipedia entries.

On the surface, this is good. First, Google claims that 1 in 20 search queries are health related. That’s an incredibly high percentage. Second, health information on the web is a category rife with misinformation, dubious sources and a fear of litigation that makes some sources too vague and generic to be useful. There are many “health” sites that exhibit the worst in web content behaviour with impressive SEO, unnecessary multi-page articles, and some of the most annoying advertising practices in the industry with overlays, interstitials and auto-play audio-on video ads. Aside from a few trustworthy resources, mostly with real-world reputations, health information is terrible. Read at your own risk.

Which is why I completely understand Prem Ramaswami, Product Manager at Google, when, after he was frustrated by search results for “concussions” decided to add health to the Knowledge Graph. After all, if the goal is to “find the health information you need more quickly and easily” then adding high-quality well-presented health information to the Knowledge Graph is a good idea.

That said, this is a product dilemma that goes beyond health. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This is similar but not the same as “find the..information you need more quickly and easily.” The former means that Google indexes everything on the web and ranks that information every time a search is performed to give a user the most relevant results for their search. By providing their own information (or partnering with a reputable source) what Google is saying is that their information is better and therefore it will be presented first. This means that Google will, for better or worse, curate and edit the content that is presented most prominently to users.

To me, it feels like a failure of the relevance and ranking search algorithms. Google’s new health content was compiled, curated, and reviewed by their in-house team and the Mayo Clinic before being presented on the Knowledge Graph. For the sake of argument, if the same content had been created and posted on the Mayo Clinic’s site, shouldn’t the search algorithm have presented it first regardless? After all, the Mayo Clinic’s reputation as a resource should be top notch and the relevance to the query is high. Similarly to results currently sourced from Wikipedia or Maps in the Knowledge Graph, Search can decide what the “best” result is and feature it, it doesn’t necessarily need to create content.

Search results for Piccino, a great restaurant in San Francisco.

Search results for Piccino Cafe, a great restaurant in San Francisco.

Also, much depends on how that information will be presented. Will it be presented alongside, like the restaurant results in the example on the right, or will it supersede them? In the restaurant example, even though it is presented in a much more compelling layout, with beautiful images, a map, reviews and all relevant information, the top organic results are there as well, with the top three being the restaurant’s own site, Yelp and OpenTable. It’s a good balance.

It’s not that I don’t understand the dilemma and quite honestly, I am glad that Google is adding more items to the Knowledge Graph. I feel it makes the search product better as many of my search queries end with Knowledge Graph results, and there is no need to follow a link for additional information. This speed and accuracy make a lot of sense, especially on mobile. Google currently has 65.4% of the US Search market share, and while that’s a big share, it still has competitors who are still putting up a fight. It will be interesting to see whether adding to the Knowledge Graph increases that share as people find the information they need faster, or decreases it as people feel they need unbiased results.

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