It’s no secret that Google is invested in health care: In the past three months alone the media giant has hired a top neuroscientist to lead a mental health project, while also teaming up with Sanofi to improve diabetes care and developing a glucose monitor. But the company may have just learned how to utilize its advertising tools to warn consumers about the dangers of indoor tanning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that tanning in all its forms is dangerous; increased exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage skin and lead to cancer. Yet teens and young adults who start tanning indoors at an early age face a higher risk of getting melanoma, the CDC said. So researchers from the University of California, San Francisco tested to see if Google’s advertising service to “disseminate skin cancer prevention messages to Internet users conducting searches related to tanning beds.”

Researchers used Google AdWords to place 3-line, 105-character ads next to Google search results for tanning beds; Google Nonprofits provided free advertising. The ad campaigns were divided into three groups: appearance (tanning causes wrinkles); health (skin protection; and education (the truth of tanning beds). And for a year, between April 1, 2014 and March 31 2015, key words and ad content were iteratively modified based on impressions (ad display frequency), clicks, and click-through rates.

The results revealed that these ads were shown 235,913 times and clicked more than 2,000 times, and as the CDC said, “a click-through ratio of 1 percent is considered adequate for commercial advertisements.” For comparison, researchers cited that Google processes an average of more than 75,000 searches with search terms “tanning,” “tanning bed,” and “tanning salon.” These searches are cyclical, peaking in April and May each year.

That said, researchers don’t know how these ads impacted health behavior, if at all. They would need to conduct further studies to better explore the characteristics of messages that generate views and clicks in order to determine whether or not these ads really impact cancer prevention.

“To promote health behaviors, we need approaches that reach large, targeted audiences,” the researchers concluded. “The enormous population using search engines and the ability to target messages based on search key words make online advertising a potentially useful and relatively inexpensive tool for public health.”

It’s not just search engines — social media sites, like Twitter, are learning that they’re capable of more than alerting users to trending stories and conversations. One study found that the way information spreads on Twitter can be used to map brain networks, while Twitter hashtags can help experts better understand transgender health concerns.

To lead study author Eleni Linos, an assistant professor of dermatology at UC San Francisco, "partnering with technology companies and social media is key."

Source: Linos E et al. Using Google Online Advertising as a Public Health Tool for Cancer Prevention. JAMA Dermatology. 2015.