Google’s Etymological Dream Come True

First published November 14, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Yesterday’s Search Insider column caught my eye. Aaron Goldman explained how search ads were the original native ads. He also explained why native ads work. This is backed up by research we did about 5 years ago, showing how contextual relevance substantially boosted ad effectiveness (but not, ironically, ad awareness). I did a fairly long blog post on the concept of “aligned” intent, if you really want to roll up your sleeves and dive in.

The funny thing was, I was struck by the use of the word “native” itself. For some reason, the use of the term in today’s more politically charged world struck a note of immediate uneasiness. On a gut level, it reminded me of the insensitivity of Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. There’s nothing immoral about the term itself, but it is currently tied to an emotionally charged issue.

As I often do, I decided to check the etymological roots of “native” and immediately noticed something different on the Google search page.  There, at the top, was an etymological time line, showing the root of “native” is the Latin “nasci” – meaning born. So, it was entirely appropriate, given Aaron’s assertion that “native” advertising was “born” on the search page. But it was at the bottom, where a downwards arrow promised “more,” that I hit etymological pay dirt.

Google showed me the typical dictionary entries, but at the bottom, it gave me a chart from it’s nGram viewer showing usage of “native” in books and publications over the past 200 years. Interestingly, the term has been in slow decline over the past 200 hundred years, with a bit of a resurgence over the last 25 years. When I clicked on the graph it broke it down further, showing that small-n “native” has been used less and less, but big-N “Native” took a jump in popularity in the mid-80’s, accounting for the mild bump.

Google’s nGram isn’t new, but its capabilities have been recently beefed up, providing a fascinating visual tool for us “wordies” out there. With it, you can plot the popularity of words over 500 years in a body of over 5 million books. For example, a blog post at shows several fascinating word trend charts in the English corpus, including drug trends (cocaine was a popular topic in Victorian times, slowed down in the 20’s and exploded again in the 80’s), the battle of religion vs science (the popularity cross over was in 1930, but the trend has reversed and we’re heading for another one) and interest in sex vs. marriage (sex was barely mentioned prior to 1800, stayed relatively constant until 1910 and grew dramatically in the 70s, but lately it’s dropped off a cliff. Marriage has had a spikier history but has remained fairly constant in the last 200 years.)

I tried a few charts of my own. Since 1885, “Evolution” has beaten “Creation,” but it took a noticeable drop during the 30’s. Since 1960 both have been on the rise.  In1980, Apple got off to an initial head start, but Microsoft passed it in 1992, never to look back (although it’s had a precipitous decline since 2000.)  Perhaps the most interesting chart is comparing “radio”, “television” and “internet” since 1900. Radio started growing in the 20’s and hit its popularity peak around 1945, but the cross-over with television would take another 40 years (about 1982.) Television would only enjoy a brief period of dominance. In 1990, the meteoric rise of the Internet started and it surpassed both radio and television around 1997.


My final chart was to see how Google fared in it’s own tool. Not surprisingly, Google has dominated the search space since 2001, and done so quite handily. Currently, it’s 6 times more popular than its rivals, Yahoo and Bing.  One caveat here though – Bing’s popularity started to climb in 1830, so I think they’re talking about either the cherry, Chinese people named Bing or a German company that used to make kitchen utensils.  Either that, or Microsoft has had their search engine in development a lot longer than anyone guessed.


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