Of all the famous people who died this year -- a titan of the tech industry, a leader of a massive terrorist organization, a quixotic dictator, a troubled but talented young singer -- the person who sent the most people searching for information on Google was ... Jackass's Ryan Dunn. We'd have never guessed it but that's what Google Trends tells us. After scouring list after in-memoriam list of big names who passed away this year, we've found that the biggest spike in search terms was when news broke that Dunn drove drunk and crashed his Porsche on June 20 in rural Pennsylvania.
Let us explain a bit about our methodology. Google Trends allows you to see how the number of searches for one or more phrases changes over time. The term Google uses for these measurements is Search Volume Index. Now, Google Trends doesn't give the SVI as an absolute amount of searches done for a term during a period of time. Instead the SVI is scaled based on the average search traffic for the first term entered. (It's all explained by Google here.) In order to compare spikes in search, we based our scaling off of a term consistently Googled during 2011 -- "Barack Obama" -- but the choice is arbitrary. For each name we tested, we punched in "Barack Obama, [name]" and recorded the SVI of the name during the week that person died (or the week immediately after -- whichever was higher). We narrowed our analysis to the U.S. since we were only searching in English.
This method worked fine with nearly every name with one notable exception: Muammar Qaddafi. Or is that "Kadafi"? That's the problem: there are scores of ways of spelling the ex-Libyan leader's first and last names in English (ABC once counted 112 combinations) so there's no good way to pin down how much he was Googled when killed in October. "Gaddafi," ranked 10th on our list anyways, deserves honorary status since if you combined the many different spellings, he would have ranked much higher.
But also consider how Internet has changed over the past few years -- namely, the rise of the social web over the search-based one. It's hard to argue that people care more about Ryan Dunn than Steve Jobs. But it might just be that when, say, Jobs died in October people found his obituaries and tributes not by Googling his name but rather by clicking a link a friend posted on Facebook or just going straight to theatlanticwire.com or nytimes.com. But for a more obscure name like Dunn's, they Googled for more information. Which goes to show that Google search results aren't a perfect proxy for what's meaningful to us. Because if that were the case, we'd have to name Rebecca Black the Greatest Artist of 2011.