This has been bugging me for a while, and since I’m feeling curmudgeonly today, I’m going to rant for a bit. I’ve already posted a cute cat picture, so I figure I’m entitled.

Google has a variety of pages that show trends in what people are currently searching for. The most visually spectacular is the “Hot Searches Visualization“, which shows “the latest hot searches”, updating live as new requests come in.

Then there’s the main “Hot Trends” page, which gives a static view of the most frequent searches along with an approximate count of the number of requests for each. (As I write this, four of the top five searches are “Lil Snupe”, “Miley Cyrus”, “Shailene Woodley”, and “John McAfee”*; clearly America has a deep interest in popular culture – but its attention span is getting shorter: James Gandolfini was the runaway top search Wednesday (5,000,000+ searches with numbers 2-4 at only 200,000+, yet he didn’t even crack the 50,000 search mark Thursday.))

* What, you don’t consider a YouTube video featuring cocaine, lap dances, and the handgun execution of a recalcitrant computer to be pop culture at its finest? OK, let’s discuss that at some point.

And then there’s my pet peeve. The “Top Charts” page. Go take a look, I’ll wait. Back? My problems with this page have to do with how things are categorized and how useful they are. For instance:

  • Can we drop Shakespeare from the “Authors” category? Let’s face it, he’s been number one on that list by a wide margin every time I’ve looked at it. Let’s just declare him the winner, filter him out of the results, and make room for the real competition – the current four-way battle between Dan Brown, Ernest Hemingway, Dr. Seuss, and Anne Frank is neck-and-neck, and could only be improved by the addition of a steel cage match. Ditto for the Bible in “Books”. Let’s make more room for the slugfest between “Romeo and Juliet” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”.
  • What are the New York Yankees doing in the “Baseball Teams” category? Shouldn’t they be in the “Bottom-feeding Scum” table?
  • Readers in Texas, are you happy to know that UT Austin is holding a narrow lead over Harvard? Does it enrich your life in any way? Seriously, what benefit does tracking searches for “Colleges & Universities” bring to anyone? Oh, wait, I get it. Clicking through to the top 100, I see that Brown University has dropped 33 places since last month and now sits at number 100. Clearly they need to step up their recruiting. Bet they never would have figured that out without this handy chart.
  • Google generously provides separate charts for “Drinks” and “Foods”. “Coffee”, to nobody’s great surprise, is Number 1 on the Drinks chart, narrowly edging out “Wine”. More surprisingly, “Coffee” is also Number 4 on the Foods chart. Why exactly does Coffee show up on both? (So do Wine, Beer, Tea, and Milk.) How about leaving them on the Drink chart and making room for five actual foods? It’s not like they’re contaminating the Drink chart with crossover foods such as chocolate.
  • Given that we’ve got “Car companies” and “Cars”, do we really also need “Sports cars”? We do? OK, if you insist. But then shouldn’t we also have “SUVs”, “Hybrid cars”, and “Luxury cars”? I guess it’s similar to having “Sports teams”, “Basketball teams”, “Soccer teams”, and “Baseball teams”, but skipping “Football teams” and “Hockey teams”. I get it that the categories are arbitrary, but I’m not seeing any obvious logic behind the selections.
  • Hey, can we go back to the food and drink question? There’s also a category for “Whiskeys” (Jack Daniel’s is leading by a wide margin.) “Whisky” is also Number 10 in “Drinks” (yes, it’s spelled with the ‘e’ in its own category but without in the parent category.)
  • Can anybody explain why “Arnold Schwarzenegger” is being tracked in “US governors” instead of “Actors”? Oh, wait, he’s in both: Number 1 as a governor, Number 50 as an actor. Does that give him an unfair advantage over poor “Chris Christie”, running a distant second in “US governors”? Or should I rather be giving my sympathies to “Clint Eastwood”, Actor Number 92, who can’t take consolation in the fact that he’s leading the list for “US mayors”, since that category doesn’t exist?
  • Then there’s “Medications”, which is a huge mess. It cheerfully mixes brand names, specific drugs, and classes of medications in a single list (the top four are currently “Antibacterial”, “Amphetamine mixed salts”*, “Alprazolam”, and “Ibuprofen”; “Tylenol” comes in at Number 6).

* Any bets on what proportion of the hits are NOT from people interested in ADHD or narcolepsy?

OK, that’s pretty much got the rant out of my system. Does this stuff matter? Maybe it’s just my training as a librarian speaking, but I believe that a consistent classification scheme is the key to storing information. Arbitrary classification leads directly to the inability to find what you need when you need it and misinterpretation of the data you do find. Consider: if Google uses similarly arbitrary methods throughout their operations, are you confident that they won’t be combining your garden center search for deals on lawn fertilizer with your neighbor’s search for the gas station with the cheapest diesel and telling the NSA that people in your neighborhood seem to be very interested in making fertilizer bombs?

6 thoughts on “Trending

  1. Put on our cranky pants this morning, did we? Go read some Shakespeare, take your meds and practice compassion for the NY Yankees, who are the proverbial mighty who have fallen. It’ll do you good.


    • I always wear my cranky pants. Some days I’m just better at shielding y’all from their effects. Vitamin D and fish oil do little for crankiness, I fear.

      As for the Yankees, there can be no compromise with Teh Evil!


  2. I guess I don’t get it at all. When I want to look something up, I couldn’t care less about whether I’m the first or the five-millionth searcher. And why would I waste a moment of my precious time casting about to find the top-whateverth number in any search category?
    As for the Yankees, now in 3rd place, only 3.5 games out of the league lead, they’ve not fallen nearly far enough for my taste. When I see them buried in last place, no hope of getting out, I’ll smile. After 60+ years of gnashing my teeth at the sight of pinstripes, with only a few years like 1990 to comfort me, I’m ready for a nice little dose of schadenfraude whenever they might condescend to provide it.


    • I’ve been carefully avoiding Twitter, despite all of the “If you want to follow the news, you have to be on Twitter” advice people keep giving me.

      I like the books Ngram. A very cool idea for tracking the usage of words in print.

      Zeitgeist leaves me pretty cold. I think the key reason is, as with the other trend tools, the arbitrariness. The “About” information says “Our year-end Zeitgeist is just a small sampling of the queries and search trends that we found interesting this year,” and the categories are subject to the same quirks and contradictions that set my teeth on edge in the first place.

      Maybe my cranky pants are too tight, but I’d love to see them spend more time on tools like the Ngram page that lets the user define the subjects of interest, and less time on the Zeitgeist/Trends tools that are excreting pre-digested nuggets of “information”.


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