According to research by The Student, Google search results for terms related to A&E services are providing inaccurate results in parts of Edinburgh.
For example, using the search term “A&E”, from some parts of Edinburgh suggests to users that the Western General Hospital is the nearest hospital to them with an A&E ward. In fact, there is no A&E ward at the hospital.
A spokesperson from NHS Lothian told The Student that at least one individual in recent years had traveled to the Western General Hospital seeking A&E services based on inaccurate Google search results.
The Student found issues with other search terms, such as “emergency room” and “a&e near me”, both of which at times inaccurately suggested that both Chalmers Hospital and the Royal Edinburgh Hospital had A&E services.
The spokesperson from NHS Lothian further elaborated that NHS Lothian has, in the past, attempted to contact Google in order to correct inaccurate search results regarding its A&E services, with no success.
After being contacted by The Student, Google denied requests for comment, instead providing a statement on background that indicated that Google had fixed the erroneous search results.
At time of press, many of the erroneous search results reported to the company have been removed, but inaccurate search results still occur for the search terms “A&E” and “A&E near me”. Most notably, when searched from some parts of Edinburgh, both search terms will list the Western General Hospital above the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and St John’s Hospital, the only two hospitals in the Edinburgh area with adult A&E services.
This is not the first time Google has encountered issues with inaccurate search results related to A&E services. A 2018 blog post from a Los Angeles metro area marketing consultant demonstrated that Google’s search results for emergency room services in Los Angeles and Flagstaff, Arizona were lacking in a similar way to those in Edinburgh, placing fraudulent listings and other healthcare facilities above those with actual A&E wards.
Google has also experienced issues with other high importance search topics. For several years, the company has been fighting scam advertisements and business listings for fraudulent emergency locksmith services, which use a variety of techniques to appear above actual listings for real emergency locksmiths. These services will offer customers a cheap quote for repair online or over the phone but then increase the price once a locksmith has met the customer in person.
Joanne Sweeney, CEO of Public Sector Marketing Institute, an Irish firm dedicated to improving marketing skills at public sector bodies, provided one explanation of why the inaccurate hospital listings might be happening, saying,
“The role of Google is to provide the correct answer to the questions of its users. So, when somebody puts a search query into Google, they will give the most relevant answers on the first page of Google’s search engine results pages.
“The difficulty with Google search is that Google is relying on the content already published on its platform. So, the public are reliant on the hospitals in the Edinburgh area having strong search engine optimisation on their website and a fully completed Google My Business listing.”
According to Sweeney’s reasoning, NHS Lothian’s webpages indicating which area hospitals have A&E wards are not being considered strongly enough by Google’s search result ranking algorithm. This forces Google to rely on other websites and Google reviews for information on which Edinburgh-area hospitals might have A&E wards, which may have inaccurate information.
Google appears to be internally aware that incorrect search results relating to healthcare facilities risk endangering people’s health. In an instructional document provided to moderators of Google Search results, Google makes reference to “Your Money or Your Life” searches, which “could potentially impact a person’s future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety”.
Information about hospital services are listed as an example of such searches, and the document stresses that “[Google] has very high Page Quality rating standards for YMYL pages because low quality YMYL pages could potentially negatively impact a person’s … health … or safety”.
However, it is unclear how effective these moderation processes have been for searches related to A&E services in the Edinburgh area, given the pattern of inaccurate results that has emerged.
For information on hospital A&E services in the Edinburgh area, please visit NHS Lothian’s website here.
Editor’s note (13th July 2022): After this article was published, Google fixed the remaining errors found with its search results in the Edinburgh area. The company no longer directs people seeking A&E care to the Western General Hospital
Image courtesy of conner395, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0