Google & The Death Of Osama Bin Laden

Danny Sullivan on
  • Categories: Channel: Consumer, Features: Analysis, Search & Society: General
  • I remember distinctly how Google reacted during the 9/11 attacks. Miserably, having to resort to using its ad space and special links on its home page to keep people informed, because its results were so out of date. How things have changed, in so many ways.

    Google On 9/11

    Recall Google back on September 11. The screenshot below is four hours after the attack:

    You can see how Google was literally telling people not to try searching, putting links to news sites on its home page (unprecedented, for Google). That’s because the results people got, if they did do a search, were chilling, sad and not reflective of the tragedy that had just unfolded.

    Here’s how they looked four hours after the attack:

    “View from WTCA Headquarters” — like I said, sad, chilling and not reflective of what had happened. Eventually, Google had to use its ad space to help inform people. This was six hours after the attack:

    At the top of the results, you can see the ad unit being used to promote a “News Update” page. Here Google pointed to several online news services and also to cached copies of news articles, because the traffic to these news sites was crashing many of them.

    Google News Search: Born Of 9/11

    The problem was that Google had no news search engine. That’s since changed. Indeed, 9/11 and Google’s poor performance in providing information helped bring about the creation of Google News. And that’s what brings the improvement to Google today, causing its results to be topped by news reports:

    I wasn’t online when the news first started circulating about Osama bin Laden being dead around 7:30 PM Pacific Time, so I’m not sure how Google’s results looked then. But I suspect that tweets began filling the gap until the news reports started appearing.

    (By the way, be sure to check out both Techmeme and Mediagazer which are aggregating headlines about how quickly the news spread on Twitter. Also see this compilation of tweets from Sohaib Athar — @ReallyVirtual on Twitter — who unknowingly live tweeted the raid ).

    Google Trends Plays Catch-Up

    Despite the obvious interest, Google Trends (which reflects “rising” searches that are often propelled by news events), was slow to reflect searches for news that were almost certainly happening.

    Here’s how it looked as of 8:54 PM Pacific Time on May 1, about 20 minutes after President Obama made his speech about bin Laden’s death:

    But by 9:00 PM Pacific Time, the results finally changed (they get updated hourly). Here’s the look from 9:06PM Pacific Time:

    The top rising search was “osama bin laden dead” followed by “president obama.” With some irony, given Donald Trump’s attacks on Obama’s birth status, “celebrity apprentice 2011” was ranked third. That show aired this evening.

    The trends have since been updated again and reflect new interest in the story, as more details have emerged:

    “Islamabad” is in the top queries, no doubt as people try to learn more about this closest major city to where bin Laden was killed. There’s interest in “al qaeda” and “9/11” and “september 11,” all for obvious reasons. Searches for news sites such as “fox news” and “cbs news” have been pushed further down.

    Every Hot Search Becomes Bin Laden-Related

    Looking at the full range of top “hot” searches, they are ALL related to the news of bin Laden’s death:

    Perhaps this has happened before, where all the searches on Google Trends are dominated by one news story. I don’t know for certain. But I do know that it is very, very unusual — a sign of just how much interest there is.

    Similar to Google Trends, Google Autocomplete — which is influenced by searches that are rising in popularity — initially didn’t have a suggestion about bin Laden being dead. Here’s how it looked to me at 8:54 PM Pacific Time:

    And here’s how it looked at 9:06PM Pacific Time, when the query volume finally got reflected in the suggestions:

    Results For “Obama Address”

    Back to Google Trends, one of the top queries is “obama address.” What do you get for results? News at the top but a pretty mixed bag after that:

    After the news results, only three of the results after that are about tonight’s speech — and they don’t really stand out. Other listings cover Libya news, one on the Japanese nuclear crisis, another on the budget and a page from Answers.com about where Obama’s actual residential address (uh, The White House?) wins the most absurd prize.

    Of course, “obama address” can and does have multiple meanings. You can expect these results will become more specific to tonight’s address, as the results get updated. Still, I was still surprised that 2 hours after Obama’s speech, the results hadn’t changed.

    By the way, Twitter says that there were more than 4,000 tweets per second happening at the beginning and end of Obama’s speech.

    Autocomplete & Obama

    What’s being suggested, by the way, for a search on “obama? Oddly, not “obama address” as in Google Trends but rather “obama statement” and “obama announcement” (as shown on the right).

    This might reflect how Google Trends is a bit behind. People might no longer be wanting information about a forthcoming statement but rather the actual statement (you’ll find it here) that was delivered.

    Obama’s Speech: Death & Humor On One Page

    I actually searched for “obama speech” myself when I was looking for the text and got a really strange juxtaposition:

    At the top were news results about bin Laden’s death. Below that, links to Obama’s humorous short “President’s Speech” movie this weekend, which seems to have been well received, at the Whie House Correspondents’ Association.

    The results have since changed, as they will of course do for any and all searches, over time.

    Osama Bin Laden On Google Maps

    Aside from search results, Osama Bin Laden’s compound has been added to Google Maps — not by Google, but rather by Google user, it would seem (Google Maps allows for user contributions):

    When Mashable wrote about this, it noted that there were 233 “reviews” that had been added, a way that many people seem to be celebrating the news:

    When I looked at the “location“, I only saw 22 reviews. That quickly went higher. I don’t know if Google is removing reviews or if there are other people flagging some of them as inappropriate, which potentially might make some disappear.

    Also, Ogle Earth covers how the location has now been found on Google Maps satellite view, a challenge since the imagery is so old that the compound is shown only under construction:

    You’ll find the location here.

    Beyond Google

    Because of the time it took to review things at Google, I wasn’t able to get quick snapshots of how results looked at Google’s competitors near to when the news was announced. But here are some snapshots from around 11:55PM Pacific Time.

    Bing has a big news box at the top, similar to Google, making the news hard to miss:

    At Yahoo, there’s the same “news at the top” placement as you get with Google and Bing:

    At Ask.com, an “answer” with what happened appears at the top:

    At Blekko, if it weren’t for its Facebook integration (which not everyone sees), it would be another normal day:


    About The Author

    Danny Sullivan
    Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.