UK Government Pondering Changes To Searches On Suicides

I saw this come up on Threadwatch and someone's just posted to our SEW Forums about it, as well. Clampdown on chatrooms after two strangers die in first internet death pact at The Guardian looks at the UK government talking with search providers to see if there's a way to ensure those searching on things like "suicide" can get to help to talk them out of the idea, rather than getting advice on how to commit suicide.

Out of curiosity, I tried searches on suicide on major UK search engines to see what comes up. Aside from Ask Jeeves, no one's getting "suicide advice" when searching on that topic. Using the default settings at each place, I found:

  • Google: Nine of 10 listings all seem to be about suicide prevention, as best I can tell. The exception is for the SuicideGirls rock group.
  • Yahoo: Listings are mostly about suicide prevention or general information about suicide (like a Wikipedia entry) but nothing I'd say is advice on committing suicide.
  • MSN: Mostly sites about suicide prevention, though the second listing is for archives of the alt.suicide.holidays group which doesn't encourage suicide (the FAQ says) but believes people have a right to commit suicide and doesn't try to prevent them from doing so.
  • Ask: A mixture of suicide prevention listings, general info but also two listings specifically about killing yourself: "A Practical Guide To Suicide" and "Easiest and Painless Suicide."

Overall, it's always a tricky issue of what a search engine should do with intervention with its results. You simply can't filter out all the sites that might discuss taking your life, at least not by keyword, as there are so many different ways people might search for that information. People can also have very different views on what prevention should be required. I don't think anyone wants depressed teenagers to easily learn how to kill themselves. But someone with a painful terminal illness? Perceptions can change with that.

If results can't be filtered, certainly the search engines can look at ways to perhaps provide free ad space to those who specialize in suicide prevention or yes, perhaps ensure that some well respected suicide prevention groups are hand selected to do well for key queries in addition to algorithmic picks.

FYI, back in May 2003, Wired had an article dealing with this exact situation at Google, where a Google engineer watching queries hoped people were getting help:

Santa Clara, Calif. > What to tell a suicidal friend

This query hasn't come from Kuala Lumpur or Genoa or Montevideo, but just outside Google's front door. A drama is unfolding only a few miles away, and there is no way to help; I don't even know the person's name. I can only sit and watch the words crawl up the screen and disappear. This is a contract between man and machine, and I can only observe, not intervene.

Stricken, I glance over at Rae, who has returned from night league volleyball, his spiky blond hair still wet. He, too, has seen the query and is typing away furiously. Finally he stops and looks up at me. "They're going to be OK. They got referred to the right places."

"You can do that?"

"Yeah, well, I can see how the system responds. And if it doesn't give the right information, I'll find better sites and attach them for future queries."

Sounds like Google doing exactly what I'm talking about, right, hand manipulation of its results that it says it does NOT do. I did follow up on this with Google, as I reported within this article:

By the way, I asked Google previously about the reference in a Wired article about wanting to "attach" better sites to queries to ensure it had good information available. I remember being disturbed by this, just as some in the aforementioned thread were, as it indeed suggested that Google was doing hand-ranking in some cases.

I was told by Google that this was a misinterpretation on the part of Wired. The Google engineer apparently meant that the Google search algorithm would be tweaked to produce better results, not that the results would be reordered by hand.

So no hand changes, at the moment.

Want to comment or discuss? Visit our forum thread, Will Google Censor Suicide Searches?

About the author

Danny Sullivan was the founder and editor of Search Engine Watch from June 1997 until November 2006.

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