A Brief History of 'What Time Is the Super Bowl?'

The story behind "the most legendary act of SEO trolling ever"

Reuters / The Atlantic

Perusing the metaphorical tomes of modern civilization, we can already speak to some of the Great Questions—the ones that might define our era. “How do we balance security and liberty?” captivates our public discussions. Scientists struggle to resolve “Is light a wave or a particle?”

Yet one question mesmerizes us above all the rest. It can never truly be solved, we must admit. Our best epistemological hope is to resolve it from year-to-year. It is, of course:

What time is the Super Bowl?

But how did this enigma come to dominate our era? The history—only now becoming visible—is as follows.

Reuters / Robinson Meyer

On February 5, 2011—Super Bowl Saturday—Craig Kanalley noticed that a set of queries were peaking on Google Trends. They were all along the same lines: “what time is the super bowl 2011,” “superbowl time” and “superbowl kickoff time 2011.”

Kanalley worked at the Huffington Post. His title was Trends and Traffic Editor. In those proto-social days, one of Kanalley’s jobs was to watch Google Trends and identify what people were searching for. He then leveraged that information by writing stories about those topics—stories designed to appear near the top of Google’s search results for those popular queries.

He was one of many online writers that year furiously playing the search engine optimization (SEO) game, trying to answer the questions that people were googling about, and, in doing so, getting articles to the top of Google’s major result pages. Hit the Google Jackpot—land a top placement on a result page—and users flooded your page, so many users they sloshed into the rest of the site.

HuffPo, Time, and the Washington Post all got good at this game, running operations to arbitrage Google’s at-that-time extensive trend data. The operation didn’t exclusively concern itself with traffic, though: By writing about what people were searching for, you were writing about what they were thinking and wondering, too. You could glimpse the web’s conversations taking place.

“It was a different world back then,” Kanalley told me when we talked on Thursday. “I almost think it was a trend in itself, of covering trends.”

“What Time Does the Superbowl Start?” (henceforth abbreviated as WTDSS) came out of a beat of sorts, for Kanalley.

“I don’t think it was assigned to me,” he said.

So when he wrote it, he had a twofold task. He couched his post as much about the popularity of the search term as about the event’s time itself. But, critically, he also misspelled his first couple of mentions of the Super Bowl. Instead, he spelled it the way that harried Googlers spell it. Super Bowl became one word, Superbowl.

His post, now accessible only through the Internet Archive, began as such:

Are you wondering, "what time does the Superbowl start?"

It's a common search query, as is "what time is the super bowl 2011," "superbowl time" and "superbowl kickoff time 2011," according to Google Trends the evening before the Super Bowl.

It's easily answered too. Super Bowl 2011 will take place on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

It seems to have read like that through Super Bowl Sunday and the week that followed. By March, the story had been shortened, losing its newsy preamble. Some unknown editor reduced the passage above to:

This story has been edited for greater clarity.

Super Bowl 2011 takes place on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

But the editing came after the great triumph. Kanalley’s post, by all reports, did very, very, very well.

What time is the superbowl in history (Reuters / Robinson Meyer)

The post became famous. By the next year, 2012, copycats were hot on HuffPo’s trail—including legacy institutions like the Los Angeles Times. The Times, too, took a tack similar to Kanalley, pegging the factlet of the event’s time to the popularity of the Google result.

HuffPo, meanwhile, adjusted its strategy, creating an omnibus story with information about the Super Bowl. The site hides previous Time of the Super Bowl coverage behind its most current version, but the 2013 version of this story—“What Time Is The Super Bowl?: 2013's Game Start Time And More About Big Event”—is still online.

But the WTDSS backlash had begun as well. Barry Petchesky, a Deadspin writer, called Kanalley’s post “the most legendary act of SEO trolling ever.” Gawker introduced a new phrasing in a piece titledWhat Time Is the Superbowl?—then failed to answer its own question.

Yet all these news organizations’ attempts at temporal dominance failed. They were defeated, in fact, by the entity that made the Bowl Super in the first place. In 2012, the NFL posted a sparse page to its website titled “What time is Super Bowl 46?”. The NFL “won” the year, appearing at the top of Google’s results.

In 2013, fewer news organizations got into the WTDSS game. Petchesky, returning to the topic, found only “obscure” news organizations when he googled. He mused that WTDSS had become a “lost art.”

At Slate, meanwhile, technology writer Will Oremus offered a reason why. Oremus argued that Google itself had killed the WTDSS hustle. Search “what time does the superbowl start,” he said, and Google informs you of the answer without sending you to another site, just as it would inform you of the weather or the score of a game in progress. Siri does the same.

This year, Google got even more specific. Google killed the SEO journalism job. It killed WTDSS. Here's what people got if they searched "what time does the superbowl start":

Oremus’s post had primed me to expect a quiet year on the WTDSS front.

How wrong I was: Gawker has tracked WTDSS through time, and Alex Balk, a writer at The Awl, has already penned a poem.

What time is the superbowl in history (Reuters / Robinson Meyer)

“From a newsroom’s perspective, it was kind of a no brainer to do [SEO] as long as a newsroom had resources,” Kanalley said.

The SEO game, at least as far as Google Trends is concerned, has ended. But, in Kanalley’s view, too, the habits and ideas that informed—and were informed by—SEO wound up helping to define what social news looked like. In 2011, he said, HuffPo presented itself as the Internet’s newspaper. It wrote about what the Internet was talking about.

That’s still the goal of HuffPo’s Trends team, which has grown from two to 10 staff members since the WTDSSingularity. Dean Praetorius, whom Kanalley hired and who now oversees the team, told me that Trends still looked “for stories at the top of the Internet,” but that it does that by tracking social media more than it does search.

“The move towards social across our newsroom wasn’t driven by a decline in search or anything like that,” he wrote in an email. “It's simply that users have been picking up on social and that's where the conversation has been.”

And when the Trends team does create stories along the lines of WTDSS now, he said, its members do it trying to “give people what they are looking for and give them the best information possible.”

“The whole incident,” he said of WTDSS, taught HuffPo that when doing SEO, “you really, really have to take the extra care and do the diligence.”

What time is the superbowl in great art (Wikimedia / Robinson Meyer)

The ecosystem around the Internet’s conversation has changed, too. Google Trends no longer serves the number of keywords it once did, and the keywords it does serve lack specificity. It also serves more answers than it did in 2011.

Yet the kind of work that teams like Trends used to do with Google has now moved completely to social. News organizations still run arbitrage on topics that will imminently trend. Earlier this week, Twitter and the analytics firm Dataminr released a shared product, Dataminr for News, that lets news organizations discover social news before it appears.

(The first time someone asked WTDSS on Twitter, by the way, was in 2007.)

At the end of 2013, Reuters finance blogger Felix Salmon predicted that controversies in journalism in 2014 would center on whether viral videos and images constituted news. The easiest way for news organizations to keep up in the Traffic Wars, as he called them, was to repost the same stuff everyone else was sharing and wait for the Facebook likes to roll in.

“Expect, over the course of the coming year, a large quantity of debate about questions like whether it even makes sense to fact-check a twerking video,” Salmon said.

But the question of whether to fact-check a, say, playful polar bear turns on  ideas that predate Upworthy. Imagine asking a newspaper editor circa 1980 if he or she could know exactly what everyone is talking about, quantified and across American society—wouldn’t that be something that would belong in a newspaper? Shouldn’t a newspaper answer the questions people have? And isn’t writing about the web’s conversations a version of that—even if the conversations concerns cats?

We wanted to know what people were talking about, live and quantified. It turned out that they were talking about what time is the Super Bowl.

Last year, the writer Tim Maly played around with that automatic, machinic phrase. The tweets from the resulting storm decorate this post. What Time Is the Superbowl—the variant that eventually even the HuffPost adopted—is the kind of phrase a Markov chain might string together, the kind of language-hiccup a tired, post-caffeinated brain extrudes when it can’t think anymore.

What Time is the Super Bowl hides a double-human intelligence, the kind of phrase people type into Google when they’re anticipating how to get the machine to give them a good answer. It’s half-human, half-algorithm.

No wonder Kanalley’s job wound up being computerized away. This is the way that jobs end: Not with a bang, but with a What Time Is the Super Bowl.

And the Super Bowl (or Superbowl, or Supper Ball, or Superb owl), in case you were wondering, begins at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 2, 2014. Pitting the Denver Broncos, with Star Quarterback Peyton Manning, against the Seattle Seahawks, with Quarterback Russell Wilson and Cornerback Richard Sherman, the Super Bowl will be broadcast on FOX. It will take place at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.