Google’s Mixed Message Suicide Search Results

I ran across a link in my Twitter feed to an article — which unfortunately is no longer available — describing Apple’s attempts to modify Siri, its voice-activated iOS “personal assistant” application, to provide more helpful feedback for people searching for suicide-related information.

With an update to phones running iOS 6 and iOS 7, Siri now reacts with a strong, two-fold approach when mentions of suicide come up. First, the assistant offers the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and will even offer to call directly — a new feature that makes seeking help as simple as clicking “yes” on the phone. If for whatever reason the user decides to select “no”, Siri does a search of all local suicide prevention centers, offering a list and directions powered by Yelp.

According to the article, here’s what Siri now returns when suicide is mentioned:

Screenshot of Siri's suicide response

However, either this update hasn’t been rolled out to everyone yet, or Siri isn’t particularly sympathetic to my inquiries. Whenever I tell her that “I’m thinking of suicide,” she says she doesn’t know what I mean, and offers to search the web for that phrase. Perhaps this is actually an iOS 7 update that will be released this fall.

Anyway, the article goes on to say that Apple isn’t the only tech company sensitive to the increasing problem of suicide. Google has modified its search results so that a search for “suicide” will display a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, along with a prominent display of the toll-free number.

Unfortunately, Google hasn’t completely anticipated and accounted for the results that appear immediately after that well-intentioned link. As with many searches on generic words or phrases, a Wikipedia article is at the top of the search results, and at least a portion of those results seems designed to counteract Google’s efforts. Here’s a screenshot of those results.


Notice the highlighted phrase? What an unfortunate placement of information for someone who might be contemplating suicide.

It’s not as though folks can’t or won’t find such information despite the best well-meaning efforts of the companies and organizations who run the web, but this is an example of just how complex such sensitive issues can get, and even the best plans of the smartest people on the planet don’t always work out as they expected.