Don’t believe everything experts tell you about the Internet

Apparently a study by researchers shows that if you search for “suicide” you are more likely to find material pro than anti. Mental health campaigners are now calling for “something to be done”, says a report of the research at the BBC web site.

The original research was conducted by psychiatrists – three of whom, no less, were professors. So they must be experts in their subject. So, let’s check; just go to Google, type in “suicide” and you get over 66m results – wow! But take a look at the first five – all of them are either objective, such as the Wikipedia entry, or trying to present a balanced or positive view.

People rarely look beyond the first five results on Google. They may look at the adverts – and you can see that the sponsored results are from people like The Samaritans, hardly “pro” suicide. So how come the “expert” researchers came up with their “results”?

Well they were doing something that Internet users don’t do. They were looking for the most frequently occurring sites across four different search engines. The research shows, it seems, that the three most indexed sites across different search engines were all pro suicide. So, it sounds as though the search engines are presenting a biased view of suicide sites.

What the researchers didn’t do, it seems, is what Internet users do. Search on Google, look at the first handful of results, then search again on Google with a different phrase if they can’t find what they want, repeating the search on Google with a further phrase if they still don’t discover anything useful. Only then do they resort to alternative search engines.

So whilst I’m not doubting the “frequency” result which these scientists discovered about suicide web sites, the conclusions people are drawing from their study only makes sense if you don’t know how people behave online. Once you take into account online search behaviour, the results are pretty meaningless. Besides which, the first page of Google results are almost entirely positive and supportive – hardly pro-suicide. An individual would have to be really serious about their own demise to search for something negative. The casual searcher won’t face the negative information the health campaigners are worried about.

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