Google Shows Us What We’ve Been Searching For: Making Sense of the Zeitgeist

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Google released its annual Zeitgeist report this week, giving the world a chance to view 2008 through the lens of our search habits. Data geeks that they are, they’ve formatted their version of a year-end report not as an easy to read (read: easy to ignore) list, but rather as a collection of numbers, charts, regional segmentations and other showy stuff that we don’t know how to do in Excel.

While we know that the point of the Zeitgeist is to help us understand the state of the Internet world — and be extension, society at large — our first reaction to it was a resounding “Huh? What does this all mean? What’s a ‘nasza klasa’? Where are we? We’re scared.” After the jump, we try our best to sort it all out for you.

On the Hollywood side of things, Google can’t help but point out America’s current fascination with bats of the superhero and vampire variety. Searches for the Twilight books, Heath Ledger, and The Dark Knight all lead their respective fields. Also, even if the appearance of Surf the Channel signals a move away from actual TV to streaming episodes, television is still big search business, with shows of one sort or another — more often than not, Naruto – appearing in almost every country’s top ten.

The most eye catching list of the bunch is the top ten fastest rising search terms from 2007 to 2008, where Sarah Palin is #1. Before anyone goes too far off the liberal end of the handle, though, a look at the U.S. version of the list shows that blue’s ahead with Barack Obama taking the first spot and Palin all the way back at #6. Apparently we have those crazy foreigners to thank for stoking the fires of Palin-fatuation.

The rest of the report follows the trend laid down by this international interest in American politics, highlighting common interests across borders rather than regional niches. Every country seems to have its own preferred social networking site, and they’re all in here. Facebook is the unqualified leader, but remember Friendster? So do Malaysia and the Philippines, where it still seems to be the site of choice.

The most important thing the Zeitgeist can tell us, though, is how the events of the last year have changed the types of questions we ask our computers. A comparison of last year’s report to this year’s shows a Googling public that is more concerned with issues of immediate importance. Nine out of ten of 2008’s top “who is” searches deal with living people, as opposed to only one in 2007, and that one was… Buckethead. It also shows that we’re relying less on our computers for medical advice (lupus, autism and gout which were all highly ranked on 2007’s list), which is probably good, but relying more on our computers for information about Scientology (#6 on this year’s list of “what is” searches), which is undeniably bad, unless you’re Tom Cruise.

Finally, a year end list wouldn’t be worthy of the name if it didn’t provide some argument fodder.

Google doesn’t disappoint, entering Heath Ledger and the Jonas Brothers into the global top ten without backing the numbers up with appearances in other regional lists. Commence the drafting of Disney-centered conspiracy theories. Bonus points if you can find a way to incorporate Sarah Palin and Scientology.