One more time: The Internet is not a help desk

Our four-and-a-half-month-old son took a tumble the other day, and like all new parents we were immediately freaked out. Our first response? Not to call 911, or even one of our parents. We turned to the Internet. Call it cyberchondria, but based on that initial reading we were pretty reassured he was going to be okay. Not all cyberchrondriacs come to the same conclusion.

A study released this week by Microsoft researchers found that health-related queries, which account for two per cent of all online searches, tend to generate fairly dire diagnoses among many users. The ability to find answers quickly, unfortunately, doesn’t mean they find the right answers. Kind of like enterprise IT users.

“People tend to look at just the first couple results,” Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft artificial intelligence expert, told the New York Times. “If they find ‘brain tumor’ or ‘ALS.’ that’s their launching point.” The reality is that headache you’re feeling could simply be the result of too much caffeine. The article went on to say that “many people treated search engines as if they could answer questions like a human expert.”

Although Microsoft and the Times didn’t make the connection, it’s easy to see how a lot of employees treat Google (or, to a far lesser degree, Live Search) as a de facto help desk. This could be because they’re not getting as fast a response from the IT department as they desire, or they feel they have enough technology proficiency to figure out a problem themselves. Call it cyberquandria. Unlike cyberchrondria, however, which in most cases probably leads to little more than panic – it’s not like Web surfers can instantly order their own surgeries or prescribe their own medications – cyberquandriacs can and do take actions which could make matters worse.

Unfortunately, cyberquandria tends to reinforce itself. If installing, uninstalling or taking some other kind of action on a faulty system makes matters worse, users are even more likely to put off contacting the real help desk as they search for ever-more-unlikely answers off the Internet. This is where information glut really causes harm. Just in the way we try at IT World Canada to provide the best news and information IT managers can use, IT departments need to be the filter that discourages users from trusting all the self-hacks and tweaks they can find online.

My best advice is to think like a search engine optimization (SEO) expert: what words or phrases do you think are associated with your mission-critical systems that employees might use to search for bug fixes? These should be used to fine-tuned your FAQs or any other support information that you feel comfortable about allowing users to handle themselves. Maybe draft a list of “Don’t Panic If” scenarios and post them to the company intranet. In some cases, it might have to be a “Don’t Try This At Home,” list, which in this case means your cubicle. Like cyberchondria, cyberquandria might never be completely cured. But there is treatment.

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