Are Google Search Terms a Window Into the Soul?

Google, Bing and Yahoo publish the year's top-searched items, while bloggers claim the results aren't what they seem

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At the end of November, the three biggest search engines all released their lists of the year's most popular queries, ranging from "Michael Jackson" to "swine flu." But what, exactly, are the lists good for besides pop-culture trivia? According to Google, 2009's top items offer "a glimpse into what's been on the mind of the global community this year." Yahoo says its "searches often tell us more about our guilty pleasures, distractions, and obsessions than news headlines do, like this year's continued pursuit of online gaming, reality TV, sports, and starlets." And Bing takes the most straightforward approach, suggesting annual search lists are ultimately "a way to reminisce." Bloggers take a more practical--if negative--view, arguing that search lists tell us things we don't necessarily want to hear:

  • Only PG Material At ReadWriteWeb, Frederic Ladrdinois explains why the annual search lists can't really be trusted as national indicators: "It's important to note that Bing's list was mostly scrubbed of obvious URL searches, so a direct comparison between Bing and Google is sadly impossible. Neither Google, Bing or Yahoo made lists of their actual top queries available this year. All we got so far are highly sanitized lists of 'trending topics.' While these reflect the current mood, they don't really give us a good idea of what people search for on a day-to-day basis."
  • Nothing Useful Similarly, Giga Om's Liz Gannes is dismissive of the enterprise across the board: "It’s good that Bing, Yahoo and Google can agree on at least one thing for their closely timed year-end search-term roundups: Michael Jackson was tops in 2009. But as we’ve been griping for years now, these lists are mostly useless and misinterpreted; Google doesn’t even give out the top search terms of the year, just a cleaned-up and condensed list of 'fastest rising' global terms; Microsoft published a list of U.S.-centric 'trending topics'; Yahoo’s description of its methodology is only that it centers on 'crunching lists based on search data.' Cue the morning talk show hosts hyping up the fact that millions of people want to know about Twitter and swine flu. Why yes, Regis, that’s just so fascinating."
  • Everything Evil All Things Digital blogger John Paczkowski doesn't want to believe the search engine queries reflect society, because the entries would indicate that "we are a sorry, sorry lot indeed." He notes that the terms are mostly blips on the pop-culture radar that ultimately undermine the importance of search altogether: "These search engines are, in the words of Google, organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful, and the best use we can make of them is to read up on the latest in the Gosselin scandal or dig up some paparazzi shots of Megan Fox? That’s just…sad."
  • Paradigm Shift in Media Consumption At Search Engine Land, Elisabeth Osmeloski explains why there is more to the 2009 search lists than mere trivia:  "The important thing to note as we look at this year’s search trends…not only are we reviewing the year in search behavior, it is the end of a decade, one which saw online usage grow tremendously. Add to that the evolution of real-time search, it just may be that 2009 signals a legitimate intersection with traditional media, and users are turning to the Web more frequently to find immediate answers. More than ever, (US) consumers are not only turning to the Web for their favorite celebrity rumors, but also for the discovery of meaningful and actionable information."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.