Patterns of information-seeking for cancer on the internet: an analysis of real world data

PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45921. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045921. Epub 2012 Sep 21.


Although traditionally the primary information sources for cancer patients have been the treating medical team, patients and their relatives increasingly turn to the Internet, though this source may be misleading and confusing. We assess Internet searching patterns to understand the information needs of cancer patients and their acquaintances, as well as to discern their underlying psychological states. We screened 232,681 anonymous users who initiated cancer-specific queries on the Yahoo Web search engine over three months, and selected for study users with high levels of interest in this topic. Searches were partitioned by expected survival for the disease being searched. We compared the search patterns of anonymous users and their contacts. Users seeking information on aggressive malignancies exhibited shorter search periods, focusing on disease- and treatment-related information. Users seeking knowledge regarding more indolent tumors searched for longer periods, alternated between different subjects, and demonstrated a high interest in topics such as support groups. Acquaintances searched for longer periods than the proband user when seeking information on aggressive (compared to indolent) cancers. Information needs can be modeled as transitioning between five discrete states, each with a unique signature representing the type of information of interest to the user. Thus, early phases of information-seeking for cancer follow a specific dynamic pattern. Areas of interest are disease dependent and vary between probands and their contacts. These patterns can be used by physicians and medical Web site authors to tailor information to the needs of patients and family members.

MeSH terms

  • Family / psychology
  • Humans
  • Information Storage and Retrieval*
  • Internet*
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Patients / psychology
  • Pattern Recognition, Automated

Grants and funding

All work was done as part of the respective authors' research, with no additional or external funding.