On Google and Yahoo, for example, more than a few pro-suicide sites like Alt.Suicide.Holiday appeared first. On MSN, however, there was a preponderance of academic or policy sites.
And, according to the report, it may be up to the search engine owners to figure out a way to take responsibility for what appears first, if that's what they choose to do.
"In general, Web sites use a certain proprietary algorithm," said Bernstam. "Many pages are ranked in terms of popularity. Google does not consider the content. It does not say 'this is a good site and we recommend it.' What it does indicate is that other sites reference it."
But there are other ways. Web sites could rank pages by domain extension, for example, thereby giving education institutions and not-for-profits the top 10 or so slots.
But regulation of any sort is controversial when it comes to the Internet, and Bernstam, of the University of Texas, believes the most effective approach is to "treat people at risk -- it's very unlikely that the Internet will drive a healthy person to suicide."
The trouble is, researchers note, that a person who could possibly be talked off the edge has a better chance of reaching a how-to manual than a help line when he turns to the computer.