How You Google: Insights From Our Atlantic Reader Survey


Last Friday, we asked you to take a short survey in which you told us how you'd Google for certain pieces of information. We asked about Manute Bol and the Hindenburg and languages in Pakistani, hard facts. 1,400 of you responded!

Two things immediately became obvious. One, Google is good enough that any decent search string will get you to a page with the information you want. In other words, the test was too easy! Another reading would say that Google's gotten good enough that intermediate-level Googling prowess has become obsolete. If you get close enough, the search engine knows what you're talking about. Two, to my untrained eye, most people employ nearly identical strategies for these kinds of simple searches.

Take our Pakistan question, for example. There was an obvious logic that almost everyone followed. Enter Pakistan. Then language(s). Then pick a modifier: common, official, prevalent. Possibly suggest a preferred source, either Wikipedia or CIA World Factbook.

But maybe there was something more to the searches in aggregate. We asked Daniel Russell of Google, often called the company's search anthropologist, to take a peek at our data. He said he was surprised at the number of times people incorrectly used the "+" operator. "Luckily, the incorrect uses don't have any negative consequence: Google just ignores the misplaced + signs," he said. I wonder if people were trying to be more creative than they would have been in a normal Internet search because they knew we were watching. Russell was "also surprised at other urban legends about Google. Example: the person who gave the query [ wp manute bol ] as a keyword search to invoke Wikipedia.  It actually doesn't do that," he said. "And in fact, it damages the results of his search." Perhaps the most interesting trend is that I accidentally spelled "Hindenburg" as "Hindenberg" in one of the queries and most of you followed suit with my misspelling. Luckily, when you enter Hindenberg, Google changes that for you and you get the New York Times obituary for the photographer as your first result. no matter how you spell it. You should also feel free to comb through the data yourself. We'd love it if you could spot some trends we didn't.

We ran your submissions through the text analysis package AntConc, trying out various statistical approaches for finding neat correlations. Unfortunately, the most interesting data we were able to extract was the ranking of words used in the searches, which we present below. Aside from the individual popularity of words, one trend you can see is that appending Wikipedia to a search is now very popular.

So, here's how I want to extend this investigation of the variance of Google skills. I'm going to talk with Dan Russell from Google again and Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern (who also studies search trends) and we're going to come up with some harder questions. But I want to make this realistic, too, so I'm asking you to tell us the most difficult to find information you've ever searched for. These are things right on the edge of what it's possible to find out with a search engine. We're going to roll up these responses into a new survey that tries to capture your more advanced, iterative approaches.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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