Brittany Murphy’s Death & Google’s Real Time Search Results

The death of actress Brittany Murphy is probably the first test for Google’s new real time search results. Earlier this year, when Michael Jackson died, it took several minutes for the news to make it into Google despite the extraordinary number of searches it was getting. The integration of real time results was designed in part to ensure Google wasn’t falling behind on news until traditional news outlets could file.

When I looked about 1/2 hour after the first reports came out, Google had plenty of traditional news results. That’s pretty normal, so it’s hard for me to tell what happened in the first minute after the news appeared. Was Google lacking news results? Did the real time results make up for this? I can’t say.

How about the real time results themselves? How are they adding to the quality of Google’s listings. They are appearing in a unit midway down the page:

brittany murphy - Google Search

Well, you certainly get a flavor of reaction from people, right within the results:

brittany murphy - real time reactions

brittany murphy - real time reactions

There were also plenty of news reports mixed in among the reactions. But I had a sense of deja vu. I watched a report from 9News appear:

brittany murphy - real time results

Then about five minutes later, the same URL was back:

brittany murphy - real time reactions

What’s up with that? Was Google just recycling the same stuff? Or was it being pinged by the same page again either on purpose or inadvertently, causing it to reappear?

Some results were just plain stupid to be showing up in the top results on Google, real-time or regardless. Consider this:

Yahoo Answers & Brittany

Really, I need to see a new profile page at Yahoo Answers for “Brittany Murphy Is Dead Q&A” showing up? There’s no information there:

Yahoo! Answers - brittany murphy is dead_s Q&A profile

Maybe that page will develop into something substantial down the line. But including it into Google’s top results simply because it recently announced to the world that it exists isn’t that helpful.

Google’s real time results were also wildly out of sync with the results you’d get on Twitter. Consider:

(700) brittany murphy - Twitter Search

In that screenshot, Google’s most recent “real time” result is 2 minutes old, shown on the left. Meanwhile, in the few seconds it took me to make the screenshot, 700 more results had flowed into Twitter on the right.

In fact, I found that Google’s real time results often simply stopped scrolling for minutes at a time. To get them to restart, I’d have to reload the page.

Other weird things. Consider this result:

brittany murphy - Google Search-8

See the second story, as 6 minutes old? Why is there a gap between the first results at 1 minute and the second a 6 minutes? That’s not very “real time.”

Part of this is probably down to Google’s filtering. The search engine is trying to prevent spam from getting through. See Google Launches Real Time Search for more on how Google ranks real time results.

I have to say, I didn’t spot any misleading URLs or other obvious spam getting through at Google — or Twitter, for that matter.

Overall, I found myself wishing that there was more relevancy to the real time results (as with Google News, where the default is to show the most relevant things, though these are still fairly recent things). Rather than flowing me random news reports that often just repeated the TMZ report, why not show me that an substantial new news reports?

As for tweets, I was working with my friend Greg Hernandez before writing this, who was doing coverage of Murphy’s death for his Hollywood blog, Greg In Hollywood. We were working to compile a list of celebrity tweets from people that knew Murphy or who had worked with her. Did Ashton Kutcher, for example, who formerly worked with her and dated her, have thoughts?

Google’s real time search was useless for this. Rather than showing what were the most retweeted tweets, it’s just a mishmash of whatever was recent. To find celebrity tweets, we turned to Listorious, which had lists of celebrities as compiled by Mashable, Bloggers Blog and the LA Times.

Kutcher’s tweet about Murphy was easily spotted that way. Not so at Google. At best, eventually a news report came along about it:

brittany murphy - Google Search-9

It was no better over at Bing’s Twitter Search, by the way. Rather than the most authoritative or most retweeted tweets showing, it’s really first in, first wins — which doesn’t necessarily mean the user wins.

Finally, Google Suggest — the feature that suggests words for people to search on as they start typing — was very current with Murphy suggestions:

Google Suggest

The feature recently came under fire for not being so current in relation the Climategate story.

Postscript: A few people have found this to be a cynical or disrespectful post. I’ll comment further about this.

Cormac Moylan tweeted:

Very disrespectful post by @dannysullivan using Brittany Murphy’s death as a test for Google’s real time search results


Could you not show a bit of humanity and pretend to care about someone dying over a rush to get a blog post out?

There’s some irony about accused of disrespect by someone who tweeted about wanting to shoot Miley Cyrus through the head. More irony too when Mark Ramskill tweeted:

A totally cynical and disrespectful use of a poor dead girl for your own self-promotion. Shame on you

Despite Ramskill being happy to retweet a joke about Michael Jackson decomposing and a Thriller comeback.

If we’re done with the don’t throw stones glass houses bit, I’ll address the concerns more seriously.

First, this post wasn’t rushed out. It took me about an hour to compile. If the intent was simply to seek out traffic for those searching for Brittany Murphy, there’s a far easier way for me to have done that. I’d have just hopped over to Google Trends, done a screenshot, listed a bunch of top terms related to Murphy and ensured some of them were in the title of my post. You know, something like: “Brittany Murphy Cardiac Arrest, Drug Use Top Google Trends.”

That’s being cynical, folks. That’s just trying to cash in on traffic regardless of any solid editorial reason to write about something. That’s not what I did, which sure as hell would have consumed less of my Sunday off and generated far more traffic than this piece did.

Indeed, tapping into traffic for a celebrity isn’t that helpful for a search site. We generate more page views, but the visitors who come aren’t particularly interested in most of our search marketing ads.

So why write about Murphy? Because as I said in my lead, this was an important test of how Google’s real time search reacted. Remember, we’ve had concerns that people will abuse real time search results with spam (see Search & Real Time Madness, Google Enables Real Time Spam and The anatomy of a deceptive Tweet spamming Google Real-Time Search). We’ve also seen recently how malware sites tapped into popular search topics (see Guess What? Google Doodles Drive Tons Of Queries & Spammers Know It).

Murphy’s death is a tragedy. She was a popular actress, and I was as saddened as anyone to hear about it. My reaction, as I suspect for many, was “Oh, no” and disbelief.

And yet, I still cover news from a search angle. How Google handled this first major celebrity death in the wake of rolling out real time search results was important to cover, I felt. We know from Michael Jackson’s death of the huge interest these type of events generate in terms of search. How did Google do? And to measure that, unfortunately you do have to actually write about it as it is happening, when you can see the actual results, not days later.

I’ll leave with this perspective. The attacks on 9/11 were a huge tragedy that left me stunned, as they did to people around the world. That day, I watched as search engines largely failed to provide information. I watched as, despite the World Trade Center being destroyed, Google still had listings like “See the view at the top of the World Trade Center.” And I wrote what I found, because I felt it was important that be recorded, not because I had a cynical or disrespectful view of what happened.

Any story about any tragedy is open to accusations of trying to cash in on that tragedy. Some of that is unavoidable. I can only hope that the substantial content in this story speaks for itself.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Google: Real Time Search | Top News | Twitter


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Danielle Gauthier

    Interesting – I was just about to undertake the same exercise and then I found the post here. Saves me the work and you were so much more thorough than I would have been.

    At least Google got it right when it pointed me here. Though many celebrity obsessed individuals might disagree with me there.

    I think one of the most important things Google needs to work on, which you address here, is weeding out duplicate content (or even just mildly duplicate content). I think the value of real-time results is diminished when you have to search through multiple articles just to find something new that has not been repeated in a previous result. Too, if there is a sudden spike in articles about such and such term, then clearly no one is searching about a news item from 2 months ago. There should be more intuitiveness with regards to what is presented – clearly everybody today is searching for news Brittany Murphy’s death, and no one cares about the asthma attack her husband had a month ago.

  • Shyam Kapur

    This is an excellent analysis. To get the most value out of tweets and other real-time messages, a more sophisticated technology-based solution like TipTop’s at is essential. Other methods will always fall short.

  • Matt Cutts

    Thanks for writing this article, Danny. While Brittany’s death is a tragic event, I think it’s fair to look at breaking news as a way to measure the quality of real-time search. I can add some useful data on this from Google’s side:

    - The AP reported that TMZ was the first to report the new of Murphy’s death.
    - The article that broke the story appears to be and it looks like it appeared at 1:37 PM Eastern.
    - From the data we have, it looks like the first tweet about Brittany’s death happened at 1:40 PM Eastern time.
    - Google started triggering realtime search about 2 and a half minutes later.

    That’s really quite responsive, and it was entire algorithmic. As Danny noted, not a lot of spam intruded as he was watching.

    As John Markoff has noted at one of the main strengths of Twitter is to flag a big event. But certainly noise does happen after that (both because there’s only so many known facts, plus people start to tweet their opinions). I think Danny makes fair points about better tools being needed to search the real-time stream and to highlight the important links/stories. At the same time, the real-time stream worked as intended to highlight a breaking story and to show the flavor of how people are reacting to the event. The rest of the search results are also there to help give important news and context. And even the Google real-time results did a fair job of highlighting news articles, not just tweets.

    Can Google do better? Sure, and I think we’ll continue to iterate and improve. But to trigger real-time results in a very small number of minutes after the news breaks, and with very little spam–that’s a pretty good result for a first-time test of real-time search. I’m glad that the auto-suggestions were fresh enough to help users too.

  • Stupidscript

    Interesting, Danny.

    It would have been good to have assigned another person to do the same with Bing, simultaneously (if you had anyone to assign). Apples to apples, and all. As it stands, we only have your comment about how Bing did no better with their “Twitter Search” feature. It would have been interesting to be able to compare results based on the Twitter API Microsoft is tapping into with results from the more limited API that Google has available, and to see how the two companies compare, seeing as how Microsoft has access not only to public individual pages like Google does, but also to the ‘fan’ and other higher level pages that Google cannot access in real time.

    Personally, I think your report was pretty good, and that Google’s (Matt’s) response was very reasonable. Your reporting on this topic will improve the more you do it (it feels like you were scrambling to define your methodology) and I’m certain that Google’s programming will also improve the more they do it. Probably, Bing’s will, too.

  • bob222

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