Thursday, December 20, 2007


It's that time of year again. In addition to the usual litany of New Years retrospectives, Google has released its annual report (of sorts) on the way we search. The 2007 Zeitgeist – a German word they've borrowed to describe "the spirit of time", the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era. At least that corner of the era we find through Google.

Google measures our search trends on a much more regular basis than once a year. Monthly international Zeitgeists and Google's new Current query reporter seek to capture our collective interests in much more intricate detail. But the annual Zeitgeist does an excellent job of both packaging our searching trends into a easily discernible graphic medium and of reminding us what our fleeting interests were over the last twelve months.

Newsworthy events dominated the trends. The deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Pavarotti, the Virginia Tech shooting, and the Don Imus affair peak alongside searches for High School Musical 2's Vanessa Hudgens and Radiohead's pay-what-you-want release, In Rainbows. The Zeitgeist also breaks down our search trends by theme, looking at our leading searches alongside newsmakers, showbiz, the "next big thing," and the heavier age-old questions.

As a historian, I am dumbstruck by the cultural historical utility this sort of report provides future researchers. As a professional creative, I am equally struck by the simplicity of the data display (even if I am disappointed by the vagueness of Google's quantifications – Y-coordinate values are absent from the whole Zeitgeist.) I am likewise glad to see the Zeitgeist's graphic and information design advance from its more primitive (but no less informative) beginnings.

According to Google, the annual Zeitgeist is not simply a list of the most frequently-searched terms for the period – terms that don't change much from year to year. Such a list would be dominated by generic searches, such as "ebay", "dictionary", "yellow pages," "games," "maps," and, of course, a number of X-rated keywords. Instead, the Zeitgeist describes searches that were very popular this year but not last year – the explosive queries and topics that everyone obsessed over. Thus, a year's most popular searches are ranked based on how much their popularity increased compared to the year before. Similarly, Google's "what is" and "who is" lists are not necessarily the absolute most frequent searches, but rather those that best represent the passing year.

The result is a fascinating glimpse at what fascinated us in 2007. The archive is worth pouring over as well, whether to view years or months past. Buried throughout are wonderful nuggets of cultural history, such as a Zeitgeist retrospective on September 11, 2001 search trends, and embarrassing realities, such as Britney Spears' and Paris Hilton's dominance of the celebrity search.

Enjoy the look back. FB

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