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Google Symptom Search – how it affects you

Director, Digital Insight

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On Feb 13 Google published a blog post on their new Symptom Search (their name used on the “How this works” page). This service represents Google’s continued interest in helping people with their health searches even after they shuttered the Google Health personal health record portal.

ComScore estimates that 100 million people use Google for health searches in any given month. Anything that affects this vast population of searches has the potential to change both organic search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns.

What is it?

In a nutshell, Google Symptom Search is the presentation of the most common conditions linked to the user’s searched symptoms. If you perform a search on “chest pain” you will see a listing of conditions that can cause that symptom with very short descriptions of the conditions:

The condition suggestions are nestled between the sponsored results and the natural organic search results. Clicking on one of the condition suggestions performs a search on that term.

How does it work?

According to the “How this works” page and the announcement blog post the list of conditions is pulled from the aggregate of searches and their results. Essentially it is distilling Google’s accumulated link knowledge into the most popular results for the symptoms. Not surprisingly, chest pain started with heart attack not because it is the most common medical reason for chest pains but because it is the most linked condition for chest pain.

Some words, like “constipation” can be both symptom and condition, and this introduces a little more nuance into the service. For example, a search on “gas and constipation” brings up:

However, as soon as I put in terms which are a condition, the symptom search suggestions go away:

There is a lot of sensitivity to health topics on ad targeting from both Google and Facebook (see also Facebook ads and medical conditions) because of the privacy concerns with releasing that type of information.

For this reason, Google ensures that users can edit their history and directs them to the Privacy FAQ for more questions.

How does it affect SEM ads?

So, we have a system that provides conditions based on the symptoms for which the user has searched. The ads on the page are still related directly to the searched symptoms, but are not affected by the suggested conditions.

There is essentially no change to the SEM ad areas on the pages with symptom search. These searches trigger the same ads they would normally. However, the user’s actions from this page may affect SEM ad that use the condition terms. In the above case clicking on “Arthritis” brings up ads related to that condition.

So, if all other variables remain constant, we may expect to see a difference in the number of searches on conditions and an increase in metrics on the ads that target those terms. We did a very cursory review of a few campaigns here at Klick and did not find any changes that looked to be independent of other factors (ad budgets, etc.).

Does it change our strategy?

Our typical strategy for SEM is to let the data dictate our actions and we don’t see this new Google feature changing that strategy. Properties that concentrate on condition keywords that show in the symptom search may see an uplift in impressions and clickthroughs based on more searchers being directed to those keywords, however we’re still looking for evidence that is happening. Properties that concentrate on symptom keywords probably won’t see much difference, and may see a slight reduction in clickthroughs if the condition lists prove to be distracting for users.

For now, keep your SEM strategies in place. We will be sure to post information if we find anything new.

More About the Author

Brad Einarsen

Brad is Klick's Director of Digital Insight, supporting our Strategy, Accounts, and New Business groups to gather, disseminate, and make accessible knowledge about our clients, their products, and the markets in which they operate.

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