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Are Year-End Search Lists Meaningless?

Chris Richardson
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-12-20

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It's that time of year again. You know, the time for "The Year In Review" lists by the thousands telling us what was cool and popular in whatever niche you can imagine. Of course, the search engine industry is not immune from taking the yearly look-back, compiling most popular search lists for our amusement.

The reason I say these lists are amusing is because they don't honestly seem to be truly representative of what their audiences are looking for, a fact that Techdirt and the Business 2.0 blog pointed out.

As you would expect, these lists are censored in the sense that adult-related searches have been omitted. However, a quick glance at any unfiltered Wordtracker list reveals the search for porn is alive and well - but it's understandable why MSN, Google, Yahoo and AOL pull these queries from their lists because they are intended for the general public's consumption.

One thing that stands out about these various lists is how different they are from one search engine to another. A look at the respective "top searched terms" indicates as much:

Google - Bebo (Britain's answer to MySpace)
MSN Live Search - Ronaldinho
Yahoo - Britney Spears
AOL Search - Weather

While Yahoo's is probably the most accurate indicator (Britney made a daring return to search engine prominence with her marriage troubles and the resulting upskirt pics) of what folks are searching for, Techdirt considers the fact these lists serve another purpose - defining each engine's user base - maybe:

According to Google's list, its userbase is a hip, web-savvy crowd that searches for things like Wikipedia and Metacafe (of course, how web savvy can you really be if you need Google to find those sites?). Meanwhile, Yahoo users are more into pop culture, as popular searches apparently include Britney Spears and Shakira. Meanwhile, those old-timers still using AOL tend to look for more, well, boring things, like cars and maps. Unfortunately, it may not be quite so simple.

Because of the inaccuracies of these lists, it's hard to be sure if they are indicative of anything other than the efforts the engines will go through to present a hip, user-friendly experience. As it stands, searches for the everlasting Britney Spears do appear to be very popular. She is currently the most popular term on Wordtracker, which validates Yahoo's list a little further.

One list that doesn't stand up to scrutiny very well is AOL's. Because of their data leak debacle, we have a much better understanding of what AOL searchers are looking for. The Business 2.0 blog reminded readers what the popular search terms on AOL Search while supporting the doubt Techdirt expressed. First off, the top five searched terms on AOL:

1. google
2. ebay
3. yahoo
4. yahoo.com
5. mapquest

This is completely different from their "polished for the press and masses" list, which again has the keyword "weather" as the most searched term. Incidentally, the most popular term on AOL's video search is "iPod". If this is at all true (doubtful), that means AOL video search users are looking for clips of an mp3 player... Doing what, specifically, I'm not sure. Anyway, the Business 2.0 blog thinks the accurate list represents the typical AOL user much better than their polished version:

So here's the truth about AOL users: They're not clueless geezers. They're smart enough to know they want to get the heck out of AOL.com and onto somewhere else.

If there's any point to take from this, it's that these year-end Zeitgeists are not the most factual lists known to man. If you want a better example of what's actually being searched, you may want to check out Wordtracker's list, although their list is compiled from meta search engines like Dogpile, which aggregates their results from the big 4 (MSN, Yahoo, Ask and Google).


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About the Author:
Chris Richardson is a search engine writer and editor for WebProNews. Visit WebProNews for the latest search news.

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