Sign up for our daily recaps of the ever-changing search marketing landscape.
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:
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:
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:
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”:
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:
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:
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?
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:
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:
In contrast, a search for global warming brings up “about 10,600,000” matches:
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:
A search for +”global warming” brings back “about 9,840,000” matches:
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:
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:
Here’s one about climate and automatic gate openers:
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:
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:
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:
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:
That brings me back to Google Suggest. It’s different for different countries. In Sweden, while Climategate isn’t suggested, “climate scam” is:
In Australia, “climate change skeptics” is suggested:
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.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.