A view of the world from my own unique perspective

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!

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Comments on: "Google AutoComplete – A Mirror On Society" (55)

  1. Great work and knowledge case… quite exciting to know how search engines operate.

  2. hahahah! i found most of the predicted search results really hilarious for some reason. why do men have beards? why google, WHY?

    also, actually really interesting read because i for sure think that some predicted search results are like..fake or something. but it’s cool that it localizes my searches too, i always wonder how google knows to look for this restaurant or that store in montreal as opposed to anywhere else in the world. thanks for sharing!

  3. I’ve done this myself many times, it’s fascinating to be able to read the public mind like that. It is pitiful some things people search for – like “what is the meaning” auto-fills “what is the meaning of life”. You can’t find that on Google, sorry… : ) I wrote a post about Google auto-fills on my blog as well, check it out at http://originalities.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/google-the-public-mind-reader/. Thanks for writing this great post!

    • Bob Yewchuk said:

      Thanks – writing this post was a learning experience fore me as well. I expected that people would consult the Internet to find factual answers to specific questions, but it seems that many people see Google as an online equivalent of a guru sitting on a mountaintop.

  4. This is a really fascinating experiment! How insightful. Thanks for sharing your findings. Wow. So sad about the hitting women thing and really amazing (not surprising though) how losing weight is a universal struggle.

  5. This is an awesome post. It’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences in what people search for in different parts of the world. Thanks for posting this – I thought it was very cool, not to mention thought-provoking. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

    • Bob Yewchuk said:

      Thank you very much. While we do have a few regional differences, it was refreshing to discover that people all over the world share the same desires and the same frustrations. We’re really not that different.

  6. “Why can’t men hit women?” is pretty disturbing. Honestly, it’s quite telling. From a sociological standpoint, wife beating and domestic abuse wasn’t always frowned upon (Rule of Thumb, anyone?). Given that over the years it has become more and more taboo to hit your woman, does it really surprise you that on some level men want to know why? I can only guess that men are the ones asking this particular question (or the world over has a lot of people looking into this issue at the same time. Maybe they are all writing research papers on when it became taboo to drag a woman into a cave and make her “yours”). To me, it seems as if there would be a large number of men who want to or have had the urge to hit a woman, but have refrained simply because of the repercussions he would face if she reported it. Would it really surprise you to find out just how many men secretly wished they could hit their wife or girlfriend at some point during the relationship? It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

    • Bob Yewchuk said:

      I agree – the queries about hitting weomen were disturbing, but they were also fascinating. There are many reasons why one might ask this question (so I mustn’t jump to any conclusions), but what bothers me is the consistency and the popularity of the query. I don’t imagine that anyone would admit to thinking about hitting women while filling out a survey, or even while speaking with a therapist. However, while sitting in front of their computers, in the privacy of their own homes, these are the unfiltered thoughts of the population. That’s why I felt that Google had given me “God-like” powers to peer into people’s minds, past any internal filters.

  7. This is very interesting. My colleagues and I tend to do these things for fun to see what people look up. As you can see, the results are… interesting to say the least.

  8. cultural enlightenment disguised as fun. thank you for sharing.

  9. Excellent research.

  10. Reblogged this on keshnee and commented:
    Exceptional Read!

  11. HILARIOUS! Now I’m a little bit scared of India. And curious about the chair trick.

  12. Absolutely hysterical — it seems some cultures are simply fixated on feet and losing weight… ;)

  13. Nice research and well presented.

  14. This is good to know. I always thought Google’s auto complete was based on my own history and secret inner-workings, like the ads on Facebook seem to be.

    • Bob Yewchuk said:

      Your own (similar) searches are included in the AutoComplete suggestions – but only if you’re logged in to your Google account at the time.

  15. OMG i was just checking out google india and i looked “why are” and the first thing that showed up was “why are portuguese so hot?”! Being a portuguese girl with some indian ancestry i was kindaaa weirded out…..

  16. It’s a bit of a strange state of being when we are all wondering why the sky is blue and why we aren’t losing weight. Wonderfully insightful and curious research topic.
    India scares me a little more now.
    Great post!
    Cheers,
    iRuniBreathe

  17. No surprise that India’s results are so different. West vs. East and all that. But they still ask some basic questions: why won’t men commit, why do men cheat, why do women cheat, etc. I guess men and women are the same all over the world.

  18. This was utterly fascinating and also very sad.

  19. “why aren’t zebras domesticated” god I’m proud to be Irish ha :-) great post!

  20. lifecatcherforever said:

    I can’t stop laughing. So interesting results!!

  21. This is so great! I’ve always enjoyed looking at what Google thinks I’m looking for, but I never thought to do it by country. Really enjoyed this post and congrats on being FP!

  22. petthespacefishies said:

    This is awesome. Totally made my evening. People-watching for the digital age! Sad, funny, intriguing – thanks for put it out here :)

  23. Nicole W. said:

    Great read. I’m not surprised by some of the things that popped up, though the great sadness is how obsessed women are about losing weight, and the shocker is the question as to why men can’t hit women. I have to agree, I just can’t believe this is something men still actually have to ask today…
    The differences between India and the rest of the world was also just so odd to see.
    Very interesting though! :)

  24. Erin C. Richey said:

    This is great! I’ve seen a similar comparison of American and Indian search suggestions that implied Indians seek romance tips from the internet more often.

    But not every statement here is a literal question someone wanted answered. The most memorable suggestion I’ve ever seen is “What are these strawberries doing on my nipples?”–the title of a book by a British radio personality.

  25. Reblogged this on para-analytics and commented:
    A fascinating insight into what might be on the minds of various societies…. (Including one or two disturbing consistencies)

  26. thegirlwiththespiralnotebook said:

    This was really interesting and kinda depressing at the same time. I guess this is what people are thinking about!

  27. This is absolutely hysterical / Australia and New Zealand – Why aren’t my hens / chickens laying lol

  28. LOL! I love this post! I actually play this game with my husband to see who comes up with the most outlandish search term. Thanks for sharing!

  29. A very nice and original posting.

  30. Very interesting. I’ve seen a post that showed the top searches that started with good grammar vs. the top searches that started with poor grammar. The difference of concerns was very telling about the connection between bad grammar and a troubled life.

  31. Poor New Zealand. Those aftershocks must be horrible :(

  32. Thanks for sharing – good to know how these things work. I did have to check up on ‘why is the sky blue’ to see whether the first Google result said ‘Rayleigh scattering’. It did.

    Not surprised that the top search in my own country, New Zealand, is about aftershocks. The Christchurch quakes and consequential shocks as the strains and stresses march down the fault lines have been relentless, and it’s far from over yet.

  33. I like how the “Why Do Women” section involves stuff like clothing. This makes me wonder why I wear heels to look good if people don’t even know why I do it.

  34. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing!

  35. Cool isn’t it, how we can now tell what people around the world are trying to find out. Interesting information, thanks for the great read! :)

  36. gpsnavigationapps said:

    wow! great work and super info, thanks :)

  37. I enjoyed reading this post. It was interesting to see that the questions differed by countries. I was surprised to see the question “Why is my internet slow” in UK. I know someone who is from UK and it was a running joke between us on how slow my internet is compared to his.

    Anyway, great post, and congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  38. feudfarfought said:

    It’s also interesting to see that if you just type in one letter – it’s always a corporation. Or maybe that’s an obvious one?

  39. Interesting project, and a bit of sociological research. Google has increasingly become our filter to the outside world. Wonder what their servers think of us?

    • Bob Yewchuk said:

      Fortunately for us, machines are not yet able to achieve sentience – despite any predictions made in Star Trek: The Motion Picture! :o)

  40. Brilliant sociological research tool!

  41. thespacebetween2 said:

    Hmm can I just go against the grain here? I think the why cant men hit women may not be about domestic abuse or dominance but could in fact be about a world where both genders are to be considered equal and so people ponder why men cant defend themselves? I just think many have interpreted this search querry to be something bad rather than something “progressive”, you know how women can fight in the army now when in the past they could not, and a little naive, because men are generally taller and stronger than women so should not hit them but the issue of self defence is an intriguing one with no easy or universal answer, as it depends the women, the man the situation, the way the women is attacking the man etc etc. I could be a way of with this suggestion.

    http://thespacebetween2.wordpress.com/

  42. Very insightful, thanks for sharing!

  43. This was a very interesting post. :)
    I found that Canada and the UK were ostensibly the most “shallow.” (Well, I guess that would be an obvious guess).
    but still veryveryvery interesting

    • Bob Yewchuk said:

      “Shallow” is certainly one way of looking at it, although I see it as a larger example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you live in a developing nation, then your day-to-day concerns are more practical. Once your basic needs are fulfilled (as they are for those in the richest nations), then one is able to occupy oneself with less important things: high-tech gadgets, designer clothes, or following the lives of celebrities.

  44. Generation 26 said:

    …Apparently the big question is in fact why do men have feet lol

  45. Great experiment and a good number of Indians searching for “Worst case of quick sort” makes me feel a little weird indeed. Few of the searches are hilarious, few are helplessness and few are curiosity. Again thanks for sharing :-)

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