Why the Google search 'Herpes' comes before far too many deaths.

Google has become the modern day confessional.

It’s where we go when we’ve just had our heart broken.

It’s who we ask when we think we might not be having enough sex, or eating a sufficient amount of Omega 3.

It’s who we tell about the symptoms we don’t really want to repeat to the doctor.

It answers, dutifully, never smirking or raising an eyebrow. It won’t tell your parents, as long as you carefully clear your browser history.

Author Marian Keyes speaks about her experience of overcoming depression. Post continues below. 

But by pouring information into Google, we’ve also transformed it into an all-knowing oracle. What can a website, that receives more than 3.5 billion searches every single day, tell us about ourselves?

Big data scientist, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, has spent more than five years studying our Google searches, which he says is like “a digital truth serum”.

One of the most interesting findings of his research were search trends around the subject of suicide.

Stephens-Davidowitz says there’s an unsurprising correlation between searches for ‘how to commit suicide’ and suicide rates within any given city.

That tells us that people who google those four words are at serious risk.

But what do people search before they type in those terms? And could those searches provide some insight into what people are thinking and feeling before they die by suicide?


“I found the number one category of searches before suicidal search was a health problem,” Stephens-Davidowitz said on the ABC’s Conversations podcast.

The number one health problem that precedes a suicidal search is, as one might guess, depression.

But another, right near the top, is one that Stephens-Davidowitz says “shocked” him.

It was a sexually transmitted disease. Herpes.

“So people search that they’ve just been diagnosed with herpes, and then follow it with a search for suicide,” he said.

There’s no ‘cure’ for herpes, but it’s not life-threatening, and has relatively few physical symptoms.

Treatments include:

  • Salt baths
  • Ice packs to affected areas
  • Pain relief
  • Antiviral medication

Antiviral medication can be used to help reduce transmission to a sexual partner. Recurrence of an outbreak is usually mild, or comes with no symptoms at all. Though a diagnosis might be shocking, living with the condition is entirely manageable, and there’s an enormous amount of support available, from doctors to counsellors.

It’s estimated about one in 10 adult Australians have genital herpes, but it remains heavily stigmatised.

“I also looked at what searches people make when they make a search for ‘herpes’ and ‘suicide’,” Stephens-Davidowitz says, “and one of the top other searches they make is ‘celebrities with herpes’.”

Thus, what people are doing at their most vulnerable, is researching whether any of their role models share the condition.

The results are dismal. Though many celebrities have been ‘accused’ of having herpes, almost all of them deny it, further perpetuating the shame associated with the infection. Actress and director Anne Heche is one of the very few celebrities to speak publicly about their herpes diagnosis.

Speaking to NPR, Stephens-Davidowitz says that this data can offer “a profound insight into the human psyche”.

This knowledge, he suggests, “should be incorporated into how doctors tell someone that they have herpes or how schools teach kids about these STDs”.

The reality is – young people believe a herpes diagnosis means their life is ruined. And it’s not.

“Silly as it sounds,” Stephens-Davidowitz said last year at the University of California, “if a bunch of celebrities came out and say they have herpes, it will save lives.”
 If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.