April 8, 2010— -- Google may be in the business of search, but one of its newest features could save lives.
Starting last week, Google searches related to suicide started appearing with a message guiding users to the toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The number is 1-800-273-8255.
Triggered by searches such as "I want to die" or "ways to commit suicide," the number is listed next to an icon of a red telephone, at the top of the search results.
Google said it was the second time the company had included supportive messaging in search results.
A couple of months ago, at the suggestion of a Google user, the Mountain View, Calif. company started displaying the hotline for the American Association of Poison Control Centers after searches for "poison emergency." (If you try it you'll see the poison control number: 1-800-222-1222.)
Jamie Yood, a Google spokesman, said the company received a comment from a mother who said she turned to Google when her child swallowed something she thought was poisonous. But it took her a while to find the emergency phone number that she needed, Yood said.
"It got some people thinking over here that [it] should be front and center," he said. "At the time of an emergency, we should make sure that information is readily available."
After adding the poison emergency feature, Yood said, some Googlers started thinking about other health emergencies for which they could provide quick help.
They reached out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and then figured out which queries would prompt the lifeline information.
He said they tried to pick searches that indicated an immediate health crisis, instead of searches for general, less urgent information. So not all suicide-related searches prompt the message. While "suicidal thoughts" and "how to kill myself" activate the lifeline, "ways to kill myself" and "I want to end my life" do not.
"We basically think that when someone is in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress, they might benefit from calling the suicide prevention hotline," he said.
Yood said these two health-related opportunities immediately made sense to Google, but they're exploring other possibilities that might also make sense.
Google Suicide Search Increases National Hotline's Call Volume
The Google feature has already increased traffic to the suicide prevention hotline by 10 percent, said John Draper, the project director for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
"This is an extra 700 people that we could attribute at least in part to what Google is doing," he said.
Recognizing the power of the Internet, he said, the lifeline already had a relationship with Google. Through the company's Google Grants in-kind donation program, the lifeline was able to promote its Web site and hotline next to suicide-related search results.
Nicky Yates, the lifeline's online communications manager, said the messages were a helpful resource for people searching news items related to suicides.
"We really recognize the impact that Google has, in the world of people searching for health information," said Draper, adding that the organization was very excited when Google contacted them about the new suicide search feature. "Any significant Internet presence makes a big difference in terms of reaching people who could be at risk for suicide."
He also said that media reports tend to skew the overall perception of suicide.
"What tends to happen more often than not is there's much more reporting about suicides and dying," Draper said. But the more common scenario is that people contemplate suicide, get help and ultimately don't kill themselves, he said. "No one is hearing those stories."
He said that realization prompted the lifeline to launch a Web site to counter that lopsided online impression. The Lifeline Gallery is an online repository of hundreds of personal stories of hope and recovery, he said.
A 2008, a study published in the British Medical Journal suggested that the Internet may play a role in whether people attempt suicide and how successful they are.
The British researchers used a variety of search engines, such as Google and Yahoo, to search for suicide methods. They found that the sites the "encouraged, promoted, facilitated" or described suicide methods tended to surface at the top (and, therefore, were more easily accessed). Sites that discouraged suicide or offered support tended to be at the bottom of the list, the study said.
Facebook, Twitter Respond to Potentially Suicidal Messages
But some recent partnerships with social media companies attempt to use the Internet to play a positive role in suicide emergencies.
For example, she said that if someone tweets a suicidal-sounding message, Twitter might direct message to them with the suicide prevention hotline. If Facebook notices a suicidal message on someone's wall, it sends the user a similar message.
"It's very encouraging to see platforms taking a much more active role in this," said Yates.