Researchers study how people use Google to find health care information

Topics: Emerging Media, College of Communication Information and Media

July 30, 2008

A new study by Ball State University investigates search behaviors using Google Trends as a research tool and may lead to a better understanding of how the public seeks health-related information on the Web.

The report by Ball State's Center for Media Design (CMD), "Understanding Internet Health-Related Search Patterns: How Useful is Google Trends?" explores the application from Google Labs that provides access to public search data from the beginning of 2004 to the present. The tool charts search volume across various languages and regions of the world.

"There is a wealth of information available through this service," said Peter Ellery, CMD's Insight and Research assistant director for the media of health. "Google Trends is capturing a unique set of historical data that provides a wonderful opportunity to help us investigate how people use the Internet when it comes to finding health-related information."

Patterns

Ellery and William Vaughn, CMD project manager, found that while there are limitations to the service, the application can be useful for exploring trends and correlations in health-related search volumes and news items or events.

"The first pattern we noticed was an annual cycle that appeared to be related to seasonal interests and events in search patterns," Ellery said. "Search volumes for words like diet and exercise tended to increase sharply at certain times of the year, like right around New Year's, for example."

The second emergent pattern was a weekly cycle, as search volumes for health-related terms tended to be higher during weekdays and lower on the weekends.

Other preliminary findings include:

  • Correlations exist between search patterns and illnesses or diseases experienced by some celebrities in the news.
  • Celebrity influence on search volume appears to be culture specific.
  • High prevalence cancers were not always associated with the highest cancer search volumes.
  • Traditional search terms for health-related information prevailed over newer or trendier terms.
  • Search trends and patterns observed in the United States were also found in other countries and for other languages.

More investigation needed

Ellery said the study has generated more questions than it has answered.

"Initially, the goal of this study was to just look at the Google Trends service itself and report on its potential as a research tool," he said. "However, the appearance of patterns and relationships in the terms used to look at this service now has us asking many more questions and considering how Google Trends might best help us to answer them as well."

Future papers in this Google Trends series will look into changes in search patterns found in the first report and will also explore any changes or alterations to the application made by Google in response to user needs.

CMD plans to release its next report in early 2009.

The current report is available from the CMD Web site.

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