American “Idol”izing Google Trends

First published June 8, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Let me apologize right off the bat. I’m going to jump on a pop culture bandwagon, but I’m doing it to prove a point. Search trends reflect the interests of our society, and they can provide an invaluable way to gain intelligence about what’s on the public’s mind.

First of all, some facts to consider:

  • The most votes ever cast for a presidential candidate were 54.5 million, for Ronald Reagan in 1984.
  • On Wednesday, May 24, 63 million votes were cast in the final voting episode of “American Idol”
  • All votes for “American Idol” were cast in a 2-hour window. Typically polls are open for most elections for 13 hours, not including advance polling.
  • In “American Idol,” there was not one hanging chad.

Obviously, “American Idol” struck a chord with the public this year. Some say the final choice of Taylor Hicks was a surprise, but was it? With the help of Google Trends, I did a little forensic investigation and charted the rise in popularity of the contestants, as captured on Google.

A couple of caveats. Total search volumes are an approximation, as Google Trends doesn’t show actual numbers, and currently Google is only showing trends up to the end of April. But as you’ll see, for the purposes of this column, that’s enough.

I divided the contestants into three groups based on indicated search volumes: the Front Runners, the Also-Rans and the Basement Dwellers. I’ve included a link to the chart for each.

The Front Runners

Taylor Hicks started the strongest out of the gate, dominating search volumes in February during the early rounds. Although he lost ground to Kellie Pickler and Chris Daughtry in March, he came back strong in April, only being edged out in total volume for the month by Kellie, due to a surge in searches the week she was voted off.

Pretty boy Ace Young was No. 2 in February, but lost steam moving into March and never seemed to recover. Chris Daughtry was a slow starter in February, but built steam through strong performances in March. Unfortunately, he seemed to lose his edge in April, as search volumes started to drop from their high in mid-March.

The sleeper in this group was Katherine McPhee, who slowly built up steam through late February, March and April, with a huge peak towards the end of April.

If one was to predict outcomes based on search trends from February through April, I would have called it this way

1. Taylor Hicks

2. Katherine McPhee

3. Chris Daughtry

4. Kellie Pickler (one has to adjust for the spike on the week she was voted off)

Remember, this was almost a full month before the final show.

The Also-Rans

In the middle of the “Idol” pack was a group that just couldn’t seem to spark the interest of America, despite significant talent.

  • Lisa Tucker started off the strongest of the group, but could never seem to rise above the search volumes generated mid-February. There was no “buzz” around her. Kevin Covais, on the other hand, emerged out of nowhere and did build through February and March. It’s also interesting to note that when many of the contestants were voted off, their search volumes dropped off the Google trend radar. However, Kevin was voted off March 22, but kept showing up well into April.
  • Diva Mandisa started from nowhere, but generated some of the highest search volumes of all on the night she was voted off. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. And poor Elliott Yamin didn’t have a chance. Despite a great voice (maybe the best, if you believe the judges) he just didn’t turn America’s crank. Although he built search volume slowly, he never emerged as a contender.

The Basement Dwellers

The three who were certified “buzz”-less were Paris Bennett (maybe she should change her name to Hilton), Bucky Covington and Melissa McGhee.

Paris started off hot right out of the starting gate in January, but never went anywhere from there. It seems we got used to the dynamic vocals, the pixie-like speaking voice and the cool hats–and ceased to care. Bucky and Melissa really only attracted significant volumes on the days they were voted off.

The point of this exercise is this. Search volumes do mirror public opinion, and can act as an amazingly accurate indicator of our collective interests. If you would have had access to search volume information, you could have called the results of “American Idol” long before the final show.

The other thing that was interesting was to see the power of community, both in the search results and the actual results. When you look at the top locations for searching, they are, in order: Greensboro, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., Raleigh, N.C., Charlotte, N.C. and Atlanta.

The North Carolina contingent was incredibly active in its quest for information on Chris, Kellie and to a lesser extent, Bucky, far out-searching the rest of the country for those individuals. The search demands for Taylor, Katharine and Ace were spread evenly throughout the country.

If you haven’t played with Google Trends yet, give it a spin. It can provide a fascinating glimpse into search buzz, and through it, what’s on our collective minds at any given time, on any given subject.

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