Google’s Not So Top Terms & Top US Gainers For 2006

Last week, I wrote The Lies Of Top Search Terms Of The Year covering how the top terms of 2006 from Google turned out not to be the top terms at all in raw popularity. I caught up with Google at the end of that week to talk about this more but didn’t have a chance to post a follow-up before Christmas hit. Now Google’s done a blog post – How we came up with year-end Zeitgeist data — explaining that the top searches list really should have been called the "top gaining searches" list. More on that below, plus some expanded comments from my talk with them last week and a top gainers list for the United States in 2006.

Let’s start with the key explanation from the blog post:

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.

As I wrote before, showing top "gainer" terms like this had long been a hallmark of the monthly and weekly top term "Zeitgeist" list that Google has released. The main problem with this end-of-year release was simply that Google didn’t explain it well. Here’s what the text on the 2006 top terms list used to say:

A year’s worth of search speaks to our collective consciousness, and 2006 is no exception. To compile these year-end lists and graphs, we reviewed a variety of the most popular search terms that people typed into Google. Click on all the tabs to learn something new — or confirm that you too reflect the spirit of the times. Except where noted, all of these search terms are global for

And here’s what it says now:

A year’s worth of search speaks to our collective consciousness, and 2006 is no exception. To compile these year-end lists and graphs, we compared frequent queries this year against 2005 to see what sorts of things were top of mind. Click on all the tabs to learn something new — or confirm that you too reflect the spirit of the times. Except where noted, all of these search terms are global for

I’ve highlighted the changed sections in bold. We go from having a list of the "most popular search terms" to comparing top queries in 2005 to 2006 and showing the gainers.

That’s fine. I understand the news value in talking about the gaining queries. The explanation should have been better, but now it is fixed, and it makes a lot more sense why something like "bebo" managed to top the 2006 list.

Now let’s dive a bit deeper into some of those terms. Recall my chart from Google Trends of the top terms on the list:

Google Trends Versus Top Google Terms Of 2006 - 2

Bebo hardly looks popular in comparison to some of the others. But if you isolate Bebo, as you can see here on Google Trends, it has a much sharper rise from nothing to popularity.

What about MySpace? It was already popular in 2005 (in fact, the top gaining term), so how did it show up again in 2006. It kept gaining that much from 2005 levels.

Queries had to show gain, but it wasn’t as simple as taking the raw "top gaining" queries. Consider a search that happened only once in 2005 and then happens 10 times in 2006. That’s a 1,000 percent rise (if I’ve done my math right). If it happens 100 times, that’s a 10,000 percent rise. Small volume terms like this could have raw percentages that outweigh large volume terms like Bebo. That’s why volume was considered in creating the list.

"We didn’t trim that list. We trimmed low volume queries and a lot of stuff about us, because it seemed weird to put ourselves on our own list," said Google vice president of engineering Douglas Merrill, when we talked last week. "We didn’t annualize the numbers. It’s the slope of the growth line across a reasonable number of queries."

Explaining further, he said:

"With Steve Irwin [on the US list below], the spike is short but very sharp. You don’t have to be growing at the same rate all year long. You have to have a very high slope of that line and query volume to be interesting."

Now what about that stuff of Google that was dropped out? Again, I covered some of this in my previous article, how you can turn to something like Google Trends and see that queries for "google" on Google easily outdistance the overall volume of other terms. Even Merrill acknowledges this:

"We see a lot of people googling for google, which is pretty ironic," he said.

But that trend line of queries on "google" doesn’t rise, so even without the filtering of Google’s own brands, "google" as a top term probably wouldn’t have made it. The same is true for those adult terms that are removed. They’re popular, but they haven’t risen in popularity, so don’t make the cut.

How about YouTube? That’s a huge success story of 2006. Is it not on the list because it’s a Google property now? No. It just didn’t have the right combination to make the overall worldwide list. However, it did make the US top terms list that Google provided me, below:

1. myspace
2. youtube
3. worldcup
4. steve irwin
5. wii
6. wikipedia
7. borat
8. metacafe
9. zac efron
10. greys anatomy

Now that Google’s post is up, they’re taking hits for not being transparent enough about the process. Fair enough. My colleague Phil Bradley wrote:

As a result the list that they supplied is pretty much meaningless, and who is to say that the version released in 2005 is actually any better. So thanks for that Google – I’ll be sure to use Yahoo or Ask next time around; I might be able to trust them a little more.

The thing is, by rights I should have made more time and done the same interviews with all the other search engines about the lists they put out. That’s because to me, they are no more honest than Google’s list, at least if you consider that list dishonest or meaningless. Let’s go back with them again, and I’ll call out the single most popular term each has reported:

  • Top Yahoo Searches Of 2006 – From the "Top 10 Overall Searches" category (and that’s all the explanation you get about this), the term is Britney Spears. I don’t believe that. I think queries like "google" and "yahoo" and "porn" easily outweigh those of Britney. If Google’s list is meaningless, as some are calling it, so are these other lists. That’s why my original article was called "The Lies Of Top Search Terms Of The Year" not "The Lies Of Google’s Top Search Terms Of The Year."
  • Top Live Searches Of 2006 – Ronaldinho was the "Top Overall Search." Right. Again, things like "google" and "sex" probably outstripped even the great footballer. Note that Live Search also did a top gainers list and there we see Bebo at the top, just like with Google.
  • Top Searches Of 2006 – I could perhaps see MySpace coming in as the top search of 2006 as listed, but dictionary as the number two top term? I think not. More filtering is clearly going on.
  • AOL’s Top Searches Of 2006  – "Weather" was the top overall search. Not. I have no doubt there are a lot of weather related queries, such as "weather san francisco" and "weather chicago." But adding those all together gives you a top search topic, which is a different thing that a top search term. In addition, you can bet the usual "boring" queries like "hotmail" and "google" and "sex" have been filtered out.

Since we’re coming up to New Year’s, here are some resolutions all the search engines can consider for when they do the top searches of 2007:

  • Publish an unfiltered list. I know you don’t want to. I know the unfiltered stuff looks bad. But give us that top ten or top 25 anyway so we can judge raw data on our own. Besides, don’t we have a right to really see how we are searching, if you’re going to shove lists that tells us based on your own perceptions?
  • Explain everything. If you filter or skew, explain somewhere — but in an easy to find location — exactly what you’ve done.
  • If you are showing actual search terms, then call the lists "search term lists." If these are search topics — many different terms combined into one – make that clear and use a different label.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Stats: Search Behavior


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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  • ★ ★ Search Engines WEB ★ ★

    The Overture keyword tool and KeywordDiscovery can still be used to confirm basic hunches about what search terms are still reigning.

    One EXTREMELY INTRIGUING experiment would be:

    1- Do a search on Google & Yahoo for the top 20 searches everyone assumes would REALLY reflect the true top queries…

    2- Contact each of the top 3 listings on the organic SERPs, and those on the SPONSOR above them…

    3- Do whatever it takes to get their 2006 cumulative stats for the year, (or just for one week if that is all you can get)

    4- Compare and chart the Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL and Ask keyword referrals.

    This would be helpful in revealing the true amount of Search engine popularity traffic – but also, an insight into how much traffic those keywords bring.

    Their stats must be phenominal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • WaterGuy

    The December Google Friends Newsletter also sheds light on the surprising Bebo ranking…

    “+ Google Zeitgeist 2006 +

    These days, all the major search engines send out a year-end list: what were the most popular search queries of the year? Scads of magazines, TV shows, newspapers, and blogs pick up on this theme also, either by picking their own or reporting on what the big sites and search engines say. It”s a real staple of year-end coverage to revisit the biggest celebrity names, trends and oddities that characterize the year just ending. Rather than tell you the most-frequently-searched words — many of which are constants throughout the year — we like to contrast which search terms grew significantly this year over last year. As a result our main lists enumerate queries about social networking sites (MySpace, Bebo), significant world news (Hezbollah, North Korea, Darfur), scandals (Duke lacrosse, page), and lots more. What’s all mean? We think it gets interesting to look over periods longer than a single year, and that’s what Google Trends aims to do. (It’s also fun to compare the top lists for years past and ask, where are they now?) However much significance you give to year-end lists, December is an excellent time to look back. We hope you enjoy the view.


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