Google Top Searches: Based on Everything and Nothing

Google made a clarification today to their much criticized list of most popular queries in their search engine. The list raised eyebrows because it included some fairly unlikely terms. “Bebo” for example, was the number one term on the list.

In the original announcement, Google said: “Google today announced its annual Zeitgeist, featuring lists and charts of the most popular and fastest-rising global search terms that people have typed into” It turns out that while that statement was literally accurate, it was still somewhat misleading.

In the clarification today, Google said: “we do not simply retrieve the most frequently-searched terms for the period — the truth is, they don’t change that much from year to year…Instead, we looked for those searches that were very popular in 2006 but were not as popular in 2005 — the explosive queries, the topics that everyone obsessed over. To come up with this list, we looked at several thousand of 2006’s most popular searches, and ranked them based on how much their popularity increased compared to 2005. (“Bebo”, for example, had very little traffic in 2005.) We also gave a bit higher score to searches with more traffic. Similarly, our “what is” and “who is” lists are not necessarily the absolute most frequent searches, but rather those that best represent the passing year.”

I agree with Liz Gannes at GigaOm. If at the end of the day Google is taking the top few thousand searches, subjectively picking a handful that are interesting and then redetermining the order based on velocity of growth rather than overall rankings, we end up with a list that is, in the end, completely meaningless.