Do you all remember when the internet was young? For some of you, this might have been in 1992, at a university; and for others, it might have been 2002, with the full multi-media internet already deployed. For myself, it was 1998, which is perhaps a fairly average answer. Whatever the specific time and technology you joined the internet, you probably went through a period of a few days to a few weeks when just clicking on anything was totally absorbing. Depending on the time, this might have been checking your e-Mail with pine or downloading movies with bittorent. But eventually, the thrill of clicking and finding information starts to wear off, which is probably a good thing for our friends and family who don't like zombies.
After the initial thrill has worn off, a new internet toy comes up that for a few hours returns us to newbie click-fiends. When I discovered google maps, I spent a few hours tuning out the world, scrolling through satellite maps of everywhere I had ever lived. And just recently I discovered google trends, and I was again reduced for an hour so to randomly putting in information and seeing how the internet would entertain and inform me.
The idea of google trends is pretty simple: you enter a search term into a box, and it shows you two graphs: one showing the frequency of google searches for that term, and the other showing how often that term came up in google news stories. The graph goes back about two years, and some items stay fairly static. Some peak with news events, or peak or drop for unapparent reasons. Some items, such as hot chocolate, have a clear seasonal cycle. You can input up to five items at a time, and see how they compete against each other.
The system has two downsides: first, it only shows the search terms in comparison to each other, not in absolute numbers. So you don't know how many people were searching for Katrina in September of 2005, just that it was above mp3 but still below sex. The second problem, something that is unavoidable with search images, is that some terms are used widely in different contexts, so you can't separate out the meaning you are looking for. When searching for "windows", "linux" and "apple", you don't know who was looking for advice on installing storm windows or making apple pie, and who was researching computer systems.
Despite those flaws, it is a useful tool, and an even more fascinating toy. You can use it to see the fall of the Atkins' diet, or the rise of Ubuntu Linux, or the return of hurricane season. And, you can answer a thousand little questions you may have had, such as "what Beatle are people most interested in?" I bet just about everyone who reads this is going to rush to google trends and spend a half hour putting in search terms looking for interesting patterns.
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