What We Searched for in 2006

First published December 28, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Right about this time of year, you’ll see two things coming in your inbox in the way of search-related columns. First, there’s predictions for 2007 accompanied by scorecards of success for last year’s predictions; second, recaps of the top searches of 2006. I didn’t make any predictions last year, so I figure it’s too late to jump on the particular bandwagon, but as to the second, I’m fully on board! Last year, I took a look across the major engines and was somewhat disheartened with the lack of intellectual depth that was shown in our collective quest for knowledge. So, how did we fare this year?

Google Coming Clean?

Let’s start with Google. Unfortunately, one has to read between the lines on these various reports. The list isn’t actually the real list for any of them.. These lists are heavily filtered, and in Google’s case, seemingly altered to a substantial degree. Here is its reported top 10:
World Cup

A little investigative work at Google Trends (thanks to Danny Sullivan) soon uncovered the inconsistencies. Google’s reported No. 1 term, “bebo,” actually has nowhere near the volume of “myspace” and “world cup.” In fact, “bebo” is almost flat-lined at the bottom. I suppose there are internal excuses Google might have for the inconsistencies, including aggregation of misspellings, but just how many ways can you misspell bebo anyway?

The list actually becomes more interesting when you include some of the terms that got filtered out. A quick look shows that Google is often used for navigation. Terms like myspace and wikipedia are not queries for information, but a quick way to get to a site. Google has already deleted many navigational terms from the list, so let’s add the big ones, Yahoo, Google, MSN and YouTube and see what the trend chart looks like. Now we see the true search volumes, and that a lot of people are using Google to get from point A to B. What is a little disturbing is that searches for “Google” on Google hold the No. 2 spot, just behind Yahoo. This drips with irony, and not a little stupidity. “Hey..how do I get to Google? Oh..wait a minute, I’ll just search on Google” Duh!

Yahoo on the Red Carpet

Meanwhile, Yahoo seems to turning into the “Entertainment Tonight” of search engines. Once you navigate through the incredibly annoying user interface they slammed on it (please Yahoo, take two Jakob Nielsens and call me in the morning) you find that the top 10 on Yahoo are:
Britney Spears
Jessica Simpson
Paris Hilton
American Idol
Beyonce Knowles
Chris Brown
Pamela Anderson
Lindsay Lohan

This is almost too sad to comment on. Almost. If these are the best things that searchers can throw at Yahoo, no wonder they’re struggling in the search engine showdown. It’s the equivalent of the tabloid rack at the grocery checkout counter.

Yahoo also allows a peek at other countries’ top-ten lists as well. Last year, the Germans showed a blend of Teutonic practicality and pure kinkiness, and nothing seems to have changed this year. The loosely translated Top Ten are as follows:
Route Planner
Telephone Directory
Greeting Cards
Paris Hilton

Well, at least wife swapping didn’t make the list this year.

The Brit Top Ten shows they love their dirt:
Heather Mills McCartney
Pete Burns
Big Brother
The Ordinary Boys
World Cup
Steve Irwin
Notting Hill Carnival
Kate Moss

And my fellow Canadians? Well, at least we’re consistent, if not terribly exciting. NHL (The National Hockey League) tops the list once again.

The Search Engine formerly known as MSN

The MSN (now Live) list also shows a bias towards the entertainment side, but it also showed how out of touch I was with pop culture:
Paris Hilton
Britney Spears
Harry Potter
Pamela Anderson
Hilary Duff
Angelina Jolie

Okay, Britney I know, Pam I know, Paris I know. Who the heck is Ronaldinho–or what’s a Rebelde? I’ve since been clued in by soccer fans and a quick check on Wikipedia. Ronaldhino was FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and “Rebelde” is a Mexican TV series, for those of you equally pop-cult ignorant.

In the final analysis, what’s striking about these lists is what the search engines seem to be used for. Google has become the main intersection of the Web. Its top searches make clear its role as a traffic clearinghouse, routing millions of users through the results page as they navigate from point A to B. It’s infrastructural and essential. The top searches on Yahoo and MSN tell a different story–one of idle curiosity, no pressing plans and killing time. In a nutshell, this story crystallizes the fundamental problem Yahoo and Microsoft face if they hope to challenge Google as the king of the search hill. They have to become essential.

Happy New Year!

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