Climategate: Just How Popular Is It, According To Google?

Is Google part of a conspiracy to keep the general public from learning about the “Climategate” scandal? Believers continue to point at the odd comings-and-goings of Climategate as a search suggestion on Google as a sign that the search engine is trying to foist its own political views about global warming on searchers. Not so fast, conspiracy buffs.

Google Suggest & Climategate

Let’s start with supposedly the most damning evidence first. A system called Google Suggest automatically displays search topics that it believes you may be after, when you start typing any word. So consider what happens when you start typing in the word “climategate” into Google:

Google Suggest & Climategate

In the screenshot above, when you get to the fourth letter in climategate — clim — rather than suggesting the full word “climategate,” Google instead suggests “climate change” at the top, then some other words and “climate change facts” at the bottom.

This screenshot was taken on Saturday around 1pm Pacific Time. At that time, even entering the entire word “climategate” would not get Google to suggest it. Clearly Google has an agenda!

Then again, if Google Suggest is based on popular search topics, maybe Climategate isn’t that popular. Perhaps that’s why it’s not showing. Maybe. But if that were the case, then what was happening earlier this week? Here’s a screenshot from December 2:

Google Suggest & Climategate

Notice in that, after typing in “clim,” you get a suggestion for “climate gate scandal.” Three days later, that’s gone. And back at the end of November, we had various reports that typing in “cli” would bring up “climategate” itself, which currently doesn’t show.

Official: Google Suggest Terms Come & Go

So what’s up? When I asked Google about this previously, for my Of Climategate, Googlegate & When Stories Get Too Long story, I was told:

Google has not ever removed the query [climategate] or variations of the query from Google Suggest.

Google Suggest uses a variety of algorithms in order to come up with relevant suggestions while the user is typing. We do remove certain clearly pornographic or hateful or malicious slur terms from Suggest.

That wasn’t particularly satisfactory, as it didn’t address why something my show one day and disappear the next. My best explanation was:

My assumption is that on one day, if a lot of people were searching for Climategate, then that might appear. Then if queries dropped off, the suggestion might go away. Then return again if more started searching again. I’m checking to see if I can get more clarification.

For this story, I did get a fresh statement:

Google suggestions are based on aggregate data including popular searches that have been entered on Google over time. In addition, Toolbar shows queries that a user has typed before, which are retained on the user’s machine. It is perfectly normal for suggestions to appear for a short while, stop appearing, and then start appearing again.

Unofficial: Google’s Flaky & Still Assumes Everyone Trusts It

OK, I’m sure that’s not going to please any cynics out there. But I still don’t believe Google is deliberately removing that term from Google Suggest. Having covered Google since the company literally began, all I can offer you is the real explanation that I personally believe goes something like this:

We’re kind of flaky about things at Google. We have these algorithms that you’d think should operate consistently, but they’re not perfect. So why’s that term coming and going? We don’t really know. We’d drill down into it, but we’re kind of busy building cool things with Lego. Plus, we don’t really think it’s that big of a deal. Only crazy people would think we’re really trying to manipulate people in this way, right?

That’s a typical Google failure. No, it’s not just crazy people. It’s people who have a general mistrust of any big organization. And when you’re dealing with a story where there’s evidence of a concerted effort to suppress information, yeah, some people are going to get paranoid about how the biggest information dissemenator on the planet — Google — is acting in relation to that. So put away the Lego and spend some time ensuring that Google Suggest isn’t operating as if you simply throw dice each morning to decide what it will say.

Conspiracy Theorists, Meet Common Sense

Meanwhile, those of you with mistrust of Google over Climategate? Let’s again use some common sense and examine just how well this supposed Google Suggest conspiracy is working.

First, what’s happening with Google’s competitors? Over at Yahoo, they have their own version of Google Suggest. When I start typing, when I get to “clim,” Yahoo shows me this:

Yahoo & Climategate

That’s right, along with “climate change,” you now get “climate gate.”

Over at Bing, the same thing happens and faster, if you only enter “cl”:

Bing & Climategate

Those are screenshots from today, but both Yahoo and Bing operated exactly as shown when I also looked on December 2. So kudos to them for consistency. Kudos, I suppose, for getting a term suggested that I have no doubt is popular. And if they both show Climategate as a suggestion but Google doesn’t, perhaps that’s a sign that Google is doing some editing?

Forget Suggestions; What About The Results?

Perhaps. But then again, who the hell cares what’s suggested as a search? Seriously, think about it. Do we think people who don’t know about Climategate are being prevented from learning about it because it doesn’t show when they start typing the letters of it? That makes absolutely know sense. If you’re typing Climategate into the search box, you already know about it. So what happens in reaction to your search? Let’s see:

climategate - Google Search

Those are the results you get back for climategate on Google. There are far more “pro-Climategate” than anti, with pro meaning those who view the leaked emails as evidence of a concerted effort to push global warming as being manmade despite evidence from some that this might not be the case.

If Google’s trying to climatewash Climategate, why wouldn’t it skew the results you get when searching for it. So much for those boffins at Google. They’re so busy building Lego that while they rigged the suggested queries, they failed to clear out any anti-global warming articles from the far more important search listings.

Speaking of global warming, if you’re a believer that human activity is a cause of it, you’re more likely to be searching for global warming as a search term than Climategate, aren’t you? So if there’s a conspiracy to suppress opposition views, wouldn’t you do it for searches on global warming?

Let’s start first with what Google suggests for that:

Google Suggest & Climategate

As you can see, we get “global warming” (which could be pro or con on the issue of whether it is “real” or not), “global warming facts (again, pro or con) and “global warming hoax.”

Not too smart, Google. You’ve allowed those searching for global warming to understand that this might all be a big hoax.

But what about the actual results? What do you get on a search for global warming? Is there a climatewash there?

global warming - Google Search

Those are the top results today. In the news section, you’ve currently got one article featured on the Climategate scandal saying that it does not disprove global warming, followed by one about global warming skeptics and one that seems against global warming concerns. That’s a fairly diverse mix.

Further below, we get Wikipedia, the US EPA site and GlobalWarming.org, which is an anti-global warming site:

GlobalWarming.org

Match Counts That Mean Nothing

My favorite part in all this is how Climategate proponents keep pointing at the number of results you get on Google, versus global warming, as somehow proof of how “popular” Climategate is. Let’s take James Delingpole of the Daily Telegraph, who wrote earlier this week:

Meanwhile at Telegraph blogs, the site that popularised the word Climategate – 25 million Google hits so far – there are those who just can’t see what the fuss is about.

I’d previously written in Of Climategate, Googlegate & When Stories Get Too Long about how those counts are largely meaningless, but now let me spell it out in excruciating detail.

In a search for climategate on Google, I currently get “about 30,700,000″ matches, even more than what Delingpole found:

Google & Climategate

In contrast, a search for global warming brings up “about 10,600,000″ matches:

Google & Climategate

So Climategate is three times more popular than global warming!

No. See, as I previously explained, searching for any word without putting a plus symbol in front of the word (or phrase) means that you are searching for that word PLUS other words that Google considers related to it.

A search for +climategate brings back “about 2,260,000″ matches:

Google & Climategate

A search for +”global warming” brings back “about 9,840,000″ matches:

Google & Climategate

In short, the count for global warming hardly changes but the count for climategate plunges from 30 million to 2 million. What’s going on?

Again, I asked Google. They know all the words that a broad search on Climategate would be matching. However, Google didn’t seem that interested in itemizing these, saying:

Google’s calculation of the total number of search results is only an estimate. We understand that a ballpark figure is valuable, and by providing an estimate rather than an exact account, we can return quality search results faster.

Blah, blah, blah. Translation:

Yeah, we’ve known for years that our counts make no sense, but we’ve got better things to do than to spend time improving the counts we show. I mean, check out this cool Lego thing we built! Besides, only crazy people every pay attention to things like match counts.

Is my translation too mean? No. Go back to 2006, and Google’s idiotic counts were the top item in my 25 Things I Hate About Google piece. I wrote:

1) Web search counts that make no sense.

Why do search engines lie?” has Robert Scoble recently poking at this, on how the reported counts don’t always match reality. Heck, try class two contributions with “about” 59,800,000 matches. But then you find that only 879 are considered non-duplicates! Meanwhile, mars landing sites gives 1,050,000 matches while mars landing sites earth gives nearly double that amount, 1,840,000 listings. It shouldn’t. Adding that extra word should give you a subset of the original query. It should come back with less results, not more.

I know, I know. It’s a bug, or search counts are hard to do, or they do say “about.” I know, they aren’t the only ones, nor have they been the first (see Questioning Google’s Counts, Danny & Tristan Talk About Link Counts, Site Counts & Index Auditing and Who’s The Biggest Of Them All?). Long experience in knowing the counts don’t add up has perhaps left me numb to the issue. And goodness knows, I don’t want a return to page counts on the home page.

But then again, if you are going to put out a number, perhaps it should be accurate?

Climategate Or Climate At The Golden Gate

That’s OK, Google. No worries if you can’t be bothered to explain the crappy search counts that you put out, which make no sense and which are being quoted by major newspapers to prove how popular Climategate is. I’ll do it myself, to see if I can figure out why that Climategate count changes so dramatically.

Consider this search:

Google & Climategate

That’s where I searched for +climate +gate -climategate -”climate-gate”, which means, in order:

  • Find all pages that say “climate” on them and also say “gate” on them then
  • Remove all pages that have the word “climategate” on them
  • Remove all pages that have the word “climate-gate” on them

What do I find? I find 10 million pages out there that have the words “climate” and “gate” on them but not “climategate” or “climate-gate.” Pages that would have existed before Climategate was dubbed Climategate. That’s a lot of pages. Here’s one about the climate near the Golden Gate:

Google & Climategate

Here’s one about climate and automatic gate openers:

Google & Climategate

My assumption is that when you search for “climategate” on Google without a + symbol in front of it, you’re pulling back some false matches like this.

Now I’d try to show this. I’d like to go through those 30 million results for “climategate” and show how some of these false matches are included. But if I try to drill into the results, I run into the standing problem that major search engines only let you see the first 1,000 results:

Google & Climategate

In that example, I’d gone as far as I could, to result 822, then chose the show omitted results option and then couldn’t get past 924 (over at Bing, I can’t get past .

As I said, no major search engine will show more than 1,000 results for any query, even if they have more. Not Google, not Yahoo, not Bing. But Google should have let me view to at least the full 1,000 (at Bing, I couldn’t get past 818). Still, even if I could get there, the ranking system will still rank pages with “climategate” on them above those that must have the words “climate” and “gate” somewhere on them.

Want Popularity Figures? Meet Google Trends

Let me be clear. I DO think Climategate is a popular search topic right now. I just think those who feel there’s a Google conspiracy to suppress it are grabbing on to whatever facts they can find (Google Suggest, Google match counts) even if those are the wrong tools to document popularity of a search topic.

Folks, you want Google Trends. That shows you the volume of searches that have happened over time. As topics get popular, there are more searches.

Let’s see how climate change, global warming, climategate and climate-gate all rank against each other using Google Trends:

Google Trends & Climategate

You can interact with the chart above yourself here. It shows that for all the years that Google has search data that it shares, for all regions of the world, that global warming is the more popular term than climate change. It also shows that climategate is more popular than climate-gate.

So, in a face-off, how does global warming fare against climategate? Here’s a look for the last 30 days:

Google Trends & Climategate

Climategate has about 40% of the search popularity of global warming, I’d say — which is a lot. There’s no doubt people are interested in this aspect of the global warming debate. Interestingly, Sweden and Australia top exhibit the most interest in it:

Google Trends & Climategate

That brings me back to Google Suggest. It’s different for different countries. In Sweden, while Climategate isn’t suggested, “climate scam” is:

Google Suggest & Climategate

In Australia, “climate change skeptics” is suggested:

Google Suggest & Climategate

In Summary

Overall, there’s no doubt that Climategate is a popular topic, no doubt. However, those who want to demonstrate how popular would be better advised to use Google Trends, rather than the far less dependable web search results counts.

As for Google, I’ll wish again that they’d provide better results counts. I’d also hope for more consistency on how, when and why it shows suggested terms. Finally, I’m still hoping that Google will show precisely what it searched for when it looks for more than the word you’ve entered. Last year, Google grew more transparent about how it customizes results but failed to deal with broad searching as part of that. Clearly, that type of disclosure is overdue.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: General | Google: Critics | Search Features: General | Top News

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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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  • spintreebob

    “google’s calculation of the total number is only an estimate”

    Translation: The numbers and the selections that appear based on the numbers are the result of a MODEL similar to the MODEL used for global warming. An attack on their modeling might bring our modeling under suspicion.

    I work beside a group of highly paid professional modelers. Their models are no more accurate than educated guesses of others with experience and with no modeling.

    I notice in technical searches that google provides strange suggestions that are obviously based on a bias about technology. google isnt the only one. it is common in our culture to be ‘ethnocentric’ in the sense that we only hear certain voices and filter out without even being aware of it, the voices of the new “invisible man”.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    There IS a “climate gate” in your first Yahoo! Suggest screen capture.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Thanks, Michael — missed that and updated.

  • Michael Gray

    reaches for tin foil hat ….

    early this week barry did a piece on “sex” related suggestions when you searched for [kids]

    http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/021280.html

    searching for [kids] now shows some different suggestions but the “sex” related suggestions are gone. Search for the word [adults] you’ll get a bunch more suggestions. Now try the word [teen] and you get zero suggestions. I find it kind of unusual that they can come up with suggestions for [kids] and [adults] but none for teens. If i had to wager I’d say it’s because of all the [teen] related sex queries people do would constantly populate the top suggestions with inappropriate terms, and they would never be able to keep up. So my theory is they made the decision to block any [teen] related suggestions from appearing … could they be applying the same logic to [climategate] …. well lets say I also find it interesting the offensive [michelle obama] picture disappeared two weeks after it was in the news and everyone stopped watching it … just sayin’

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  • http://www.twitter.com/GregBogdan Greg Bogdan

    As of this morning I see that Google has picked up on “climategate” in the suggest box and now shows it as the number 1 suggestion as you begin to type “climate” into the search box.

    So for Google, either their search suggest tool is behind Bing and Yahoo or there was some conspiracy. I believe that it was the former. Google’s search suggest tool is lagging behind others.

    Perhaps Google is using a different algorithm that takes longer to budge search suggest or the shear volume of searches on Google takes it longer to calculate and move the needle. All of this still presents a challenge for Google.

  • http://www.Match.ccom simons1321

    I interpret portions of Google’s responses as such:

    “…including popular searches that have been entered on Google over time…”
    The keywords here being “over time”, which to me suggests that the short period of the popularity of “climategate” might not be enough to consistently appear in Google Suggest compared with other keywords which have a much longer established history.

    “Google Suggest uses a variety of algorithms…”
    To me this says that perhaps Google suggest doesn’t look at search query volume alone. Maybe Google suggest looks at additional factors other than Search volume, possibly including: # recent pages indexed with those exact keywords, # of pages from trusted sources, etc, to determine popularity in Google Suggest. Again, over time, this might cause other keyword suggestions to be more popular than “climategate” because of it’s only recent popularity.

  • http://www.architechsw.com pavlicko

    Call me a conspiracy theorist too, but I’ve seen way too many of these incidents occurring on Google – over the last 2 or 3 years especially.

    Take the ‘climategate’ example – if I’m Google and I see that ‘climategate’ is related to climate change, and that there is a HUGE increase in searches for climategate, climate change scam, etc.. over the last few weeks, shouldn’t I start returning SOME of those results in with the regular search for ‘climate change’?

    I would think so – absolutely. Unfortunately, this ain’t happening. Even if you use their new options feature and search for results in the last week, you’ll be lucky to find 1 or 2 stories out of the first 5 pages of results.

    I noticed the exact same thing happening during the recent health care bill debate – opposing viewpoints (those against the bill) were very difficult to find, even though there were a ton of sites writing about it from both sides of the aisle.

    I could be a complete whack-a-do, but mistakes don’t just keep happening for one side and not the other. I even wrote a post on their political bias a few months back – http://tampaseo.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/google-squared-hates-conservatives/

    I WANT to trust Google, but there are definitely some shadows there that haven’t come into the light just yet.

  • yahoo777

    There has been a good ongoing discussion of this also on the google forums, many of which reference back to this article.
    See the discussions here: http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Web+Search/thread?tid=25112ee0c29cbd01&hl=en

    Please note that google has already listed this discussion as answered, even though only 5 out of 21 people found the answer provided by Google to be useful. Meanwhile, answers from other users which are 100% useful are not listed as the primary answer, so make sure you click and read “Show all replies”.

    ******
    Lastly, as a reply to Greg Bogden who posted earlier, you are not correct in your assumptions. The word climate-gate did appear several days ago as an option in the google suggestion list and was since removed, then re-added again (I’m assuming in response to the outcry…). And please note that google’s top stories always are stories playing down climategate, NOT stories that support. I doubt Google is using a different algorithm that takes longer to update than their competitors. That is simply not the case. As many others have noted in the ongoing discussion, many topics that are far less popular than climategate have appeared in suggestion lists in a matter of hours. Remember, if you control what knowledge people can access, you can influence public opinion, and believe me, google knows that…

  • http://incrediblehelp incrediblehelp

    Danny lets not forget that Google just released big changes to personalized search which is probably affecting auto-complete greatly now.

  • yahoo777

    Funny that these big changes to personalized search didn’t impact other similar search suggestions such as “climate change”, or even less popular searches like “climate gear” or “climate zones”, which remained constant during the same time period.

    Regardless of the suggestions list, Google’s first page search results for “climategate” have consistently displayed 2-4 day old links to stories that debunk climategate while other search engines show current links to stories that actually are about climategate. And when you use google to search for “climate change” you surprisingly get current stories only an hour or so old that support global warming.

    Google has already admitted that in China they DO filter content per the direction of the Chinese communist party. We know they have the ability to do advanced and complex filtering based on any number of criteria and methodologies. Lets not be naive and think they don’t use a toned down variation of this logic in the good ole USA to influence first page search results, which ultimately influences public opinion.

  • http://www.firetown.com firetown

    I am confused. A lot of speculating going on. Also whether or not suggestions make an impact or not makes me wonder why we have them to begin with.

    I have been searching for a few terms which are very new. Amazingly Tiger Woods’ mistress’ name immediately suggests him and her.

    I’m not wasting my life with conspiracy theories, neither am I a fan of drawn out answers which are not hitting the center of the discussion.

    Am I wrong?

  • ronabop

    “No, it’s not just crazy people. It’s people who have a general mistrust of any big organization.”

    AKA: crazy people. General mistrust of big organizations is a symptom of delusional paranoia,

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