Back in late 1990s, soon after the Internet entered the public consciousness, some of the search engines of the day (Web Crawler, Lycos, Infoseek, Alta Vista) had pages showing a real-time, unfiltered search feed. I found this fascinating, and I used it to peer into the minds of the general public to see what piqued their curiosity. It also gave me the illusion of possessing God-like powers – the ability to know what everyone was thinking at that very moment. Sadly, there are no more real-time search feeds (at least, none that I can find), but I have discovered a new way to peer into the minds of the population, by combining two Google search features. In fact, these two features used together are not only more entertaining, but may be useful to budding sociologists.
Feature #1: AutoComplete: Back in September 2010, Google introduced a new time-saving feature called AutoComplete. As you type in your query, suggestions will appear automatically in the drop-down menu below the search box, which will (in theory) predict your search and will save you from typing in your entire search string. The drop-down menu initially contained ten suggestions, but that was soon reduced to four.
The results are (as I expected) ranked by popularity, with a few additional variables thrown in:
- Personalized searches (queries made while you’re logged in to your Google account) are often included in the suggestions.
- The “freshness” of the query. Trending topics are ranked higher while they are popular.
- Racist, piracy-related, and adult-oriented suggestions are not displayed.
If you’re interested in the details, a web site called Search Engine Land offers an in-depth analysis of the AutoComplete feature and the variables affecting the rankings.
Feature #2 – Google Localization: You probably know that most countries have their own Google search page. In addition to providing an interface in the local language, the search results themselves are also localized. This means that the AutoComplete suggestions will also vary, since they are based on the queries made in that country.
Combining these two features is, to me anyway, absolutely fascinating because it turns Google into cultural mirror for societies around the world. With a little bit of work, I can compare the relative popularity of search queries made in various countries, and use that information to contrast our cultural differences.
Step 1 – Choosing The Countries: For this experiment, I decided to collect my data in countries where English is spoken as an official language: United States (www.google.com), Canada (www.google.ca), United Kingdom (www.google.co.uk), Ireland (www.google.ie), Australia (www.google.com.au), New Zealand (www.google.co.nz), South Africa (www.google.co.za), Israel (www.google.co.il) and India (www.google.co.in). Clicking on any of these links will open a Google web page in a separate tab, so that you can also experiment with your own localized queries.
Step 2 – Choosing The Questions: While Google is usually used to find specific information, I decided to keep all of the questions open-ended. My approach was “What would you ask Google, if it were an all-knowing oracle?”, and then compare and contrast the answers from various countries. I’ve added the web address of each Google site to the results (see above list for the country correlations).
Why Is: I expected the usual questions for this query, such as “Why is the sky blue?”, or “Why is the grass green?”. As it turns out, many Canadians were curious about the colour green, but for very different reasons…
Why Aren’t: It was interesting to see the wide variety of the suggestions. Things that weigh heavily on the minds of one population are typically not even on the radar of another.
What Is The Best: The populations of most countries are concerned with gadgets: what is the best laptop, smartphone, tablet, e-reader etc. However, people in India have other concerns.
What Is The Worst: The answers here were remarkably consistent from country to country, but once again, India is the exception.
Why Do Men: Sadly, the most popular AutoComplete suggestion across all of the countries on my list was “Why do men cheat?”.
Why Do Women: I thought that this would give me some insight about the mysteries that have confounded men for centuries. Sadly, the most popular suggestion (with the exception of India) was “Why do women cheat?”
Why Can’t Men: Of all the queries, I found this one the most unsettling. I was expecting to see questions such as “Why can’t men put the toilet seat down?”, but instead I discovered that the phrase “Why can’t men hit women” was the number one result in six out of the nine countries; in the other three, it was ranked number two. I am astonished that anyone would ask this question.
Why Won’t Men: Gentlemen – are you wondering what women are really looking for in men? Google may have an answer for you. It appears that women around the world are all looking for the same things.
Finally, I’m not sure whether I should laugh at this, or simply shake my head in utter disbelief. I was looking for information about the Linux kernel, and when I typed “kernel”, Google’s AutoComplete displayed “Kernel Sanders” as one of the choices. I’m used to seeing spelling and grammar errors in online posts, but the popularity of this phonetic misspelling, as implied by its ranking within the top four suggestions, is both shocking and appalling. I weep for the future…
These are just a few query examples – feel free to try some of your own. Click on the Google addresses near the top of this article, and that county’s local Google search page will open in a new tab. If you discover something interesting, then please leave a comment and share it!