Correction at 4:13 p.m. PDT Thursday: Roni Zeiger's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.
Google is attempting to find out how much of a role Internet searches play in the self-diagnosis process.
The company plans later Wednesday to start rolling out a subtle question at the bottom of pages with search results for a few common ailments, such as "Did you search because you or someone you know may have an ear infection?" That question will only appear for a very small number of users who search for terms such as "ear infection," but it will help Google start to understand how many people are searching on such terms looking for treatment remedies or options as opposed to doing research, said Dr. Roni Zeiger, a product manager for Google Health.
In a way, this is an extension of the work Google has done tracking the flu with Google Flu Trends. The company noticed that search activity related to the flu tends to rise about two weeks before a similar rise is reported to the Centers for Disease Control by doctors, but years of data on flu patterns validates those trends, Zeiger said. Similar data does not exist for more common health issues.
Google is not exactly sure what it wants to do with that data, or how much useful data will be produced by the experiment. Ultimately, however, everything at Google goes back into the search process, so it's possible that the data could be used to offer searchers more options, such as "Did you mean to search for treatment options for X?" at the top of the search page.
This is a temporary project: Google plans to gather data for several weeks, starting Wednesday afternoon.