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13 Years of Google Zeitgeist

13 Years of Google Zeitgeist

Searching is like a stream of consciousness; we start with a specific intent and wind up browsing from one click to the next. It is truly a web; an addiction of clicks that comes, like so many things, with both benefits and drawbacks.

In 2001, Nostradamus, CNN and the World Trade Center were on the way up in search volume, while Pokemon, the Olympics and voting, on the tail of a controversial election, were on the way down.

My confused instinct was the first plane was a drunk farmer blindly lost on his way to spray crops. The images, let alone the second plane, on display inside the media room at the Washington, DC offices of Hill & Knowlton, proved otherwise.  I could see the smoke streaming from across the Potomac River from the balcony of the Watergate.

Thirteen years later, Nelson Mandela, Margret Thatcher, Paul Walker and a product, the iPhone 5s top the global search trends in the 2013 Google Zeitgeist. I first learned of Nelson Mandella when Peter Shankman’s update appeared in my Facebook news stream.  And then searched to learn the details.

The first-ever Google Zeitgeist landing page included a media contact listed prominently; most PR pros at that time hadn’t even heard of anchor text in a press release.  This year, no further explanation was needed as to what the Zeitgeist is, and no media contact offered prominently.  What is prominent in these year-end trends, whether the first or the last, our top searches often seem to center on a goodbye.

What factor does prominence have in search?

Whitney Houston topped the charts for one last time in 2012. There’s no mistaking that endings are part of life, indeed an important part of our journey and hence our searches, but some part of me hopes should Prince William and Catherine Middleton ever have children, we might see a birth on these charts at year’s end. Still, there’s plenty to celebrate too in the zeitgeist.

We always root for a comeback story. Six million different ways, Malala.

From Google Zeitgeist | Here's to 2013

From Google Zeitgeist | Here’s to 2013


If nostalgia is a yearning for yesterday, then we must:

“Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.”

There’s a marketing element to Google’s Zeitgeist – we see products from Gmail to Google Voice to Google+ make appearances. There’s a utility in these projects too; a reflection of who we are, or who we are over time, through the lenses of the answers for which we search.

Things are not always how we remember them. It’s nostalgic. Where were you when that happened?

Never stop searching.

There’s hope too in search…of the super-hero kind. It was Spiderman’s year in 2002. Bat Kid galvanized a city and inspired a world in 2013, it was a defining spirit, which according to Google’s Knowledge Graph, defines a zeitgeist:

“the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.”

In a blog post announcing this year’s review in search, Google wrote:

“…we reflect on the people, places, and moments that captured the world’s attention throughout the year.”

Hollywood is rarely far from our minds, or our keyboards.

Britney Spears was a most popular query in 2003 and 2004.  In 2013, you can also find her on Google+ – she’s using a middle name now.  It’s very southern.

Reinvention is a PR strategy.  To her credit, she’s been there, done that, at least twice.

Of Eggs and MySpace

Luke” was the most popular search for boys’ names this year — I’ve seen it spelled Luc too — and more people wanted to know how many calories were in an egg – more than any other food.

Eggland’s Best says there are 75 calories per egg on the carton; Google says there are 78. It’s a pity I couldn’t find the calorie count on the nutrition section of the company’s website.

There’s an opportunity to be helpful in answering customer questions; why pass up the opportunity to provide a potential customer an answer? Helping is endearing, but if marketers must hype over help, know that emotional messages are twice as effective as promotional messages. The Google Zeitgeist is a perfect intersection of all three concepts; repeatable and fitting in tone.

Did you see that asteroid, comet, in the top search spot?  It reminded me of a time when an SEO walked into a bar, tavern, drinking establishment, and ordered drink, drinks, beer, cocktail…”

So it’s not perfect but I’d still love to see a Zeitgesit from 1999.  Imagine 2014 without Google.

MySpace was hot in 2005, Wikipedia and Orkut made the top 5.  In 2013, Google automatically makes Orkut accounts for Google users and somehow MySpace still winds up on 2014 social media predictions lists, though you really have to search for it.

Biased?  There’s no such thing as an agnostic search anymore.  It’s based partly on your Google Drive.

Through the Haze

Google’s Zeitgeist gets hazy for the years 2006, 2007 and 2008.  I could not easily find references amid the clutter in Google. There’s big data in 13 years; there’s also confusion and broken links.  Even Google has broken links sometimes. We’ve seen penguins and pandas; parrot hasn’t been used yet though it’s probably apropos.

I posed the question to Quora and got an answer in 20 minutes. Plenty of entrepreneurs have thought that’s a model on which to build a business, but Google makes the economics dicey. Google Trends says volume for Quora was last at its peak in January 2011.

In 2007 we searched for an augmented reality called Second Life. The company popularized virtual currency known as the Linden Dollar, which while launched in 2003, gained traction in search in 2007. Others followed and I spent 50 credits to ask a Google engineer my question on Quora today; he declined, but someone else stepped up to answer.

The non-profit news organization Marketplace now has a tag for stories about bitcoins.

Count on this:  virtual currency will be a thing on social networks in Google’s 2017 Zeitgeist. Technologists tend to be too aggressive in making predictions; the promise of 1999 e-commerce came true, but it took 4-5 years longer than expected. While there was a lot of hype around bitcoins and virtual currency, it’s going to take a little time for the concept to catch on.

Sarah Palin was the #1 fastest rising search term in 2008; while the Jonas Brothers looked forward to the year 3,000 in the #10 spot.  Imagine if we had a search zeitgeist in 1984; we might as well jump.

The former turned up as a surprise pick for the vice-presidential ticket that election cycle. Three years later mainstream political reporters still couldn’t understand why she’d endorse former HP CEO Carly Fiorina for Governor of California on her Facebook page.

Engagement isn’t a complicated thing…unless you never had to do it before. Still three more years later, some of them still don’t and I can’t understand why. Indifference is not an investigative quality.  Even a short pedestal can lead to a hard fall.

What we might take for granted about these reviews is that it’s not an editor picking what they think was most important – it is what we collectively sought out. Good journalism is surely valuable, but the web has changed the dynamics. Everyone has a searchable voice.

In 1996 a communications professor at Worcester State University asked our class, is media a reflection of society or the other way around? There are credible arguments on both sides. I rarely agreed with her, but here I am remembering so many years later.  Maybe that’s how to measure an impression.

Spirit of the Times

Those years – 2006 to 2008 – seem hazy to me personally as I spent a sizable portion of them either training or deployed overseas. Fitting then that Saddam Hussein spiked in volume in December 2006 – he was captured in 2003, convicted in 2006 and executed that December.

I remember watching the unit we replaced leave and thinking, wow, a year deployed is a really long time.   But also clearly recall the feeling of the plane that finally brought us home touching down — not far from where I live today.

I never thought I’d move here; made my mind up about that 20 years ago in the winter woods near Camp Lejeune.  Today, I’m glad I did.

Earth Day topped search volume the week we got back from Iraq; a girl that I had become re-acquainted with on mid-tour leave, and had subsequently written me overseas, told me she was getting back with her old boyfriend. She used to like Mat Kearney’s music.

Late in 2008, the start-up tech company that employed me sold for the same amount of money investors had poured into it over ten years. Elements of that start-upa are still findable through Google’s servers, though I suspect volume is quite tepid.

Screenshot Google Zeitgeist | Here's to 2013

Screenshot Google Zeitgeist | Here’s to 2013

Improved in 2009

In 2009, the Google Zeitgeist was back with a much-improved search year in review; the company wrote:

“Another year has come and gone, and as always, we’re taking a moment to look back at the happenings of 2009—the people, events and memories that made this year unique. Each year, we examine the billions of queries that people around the world have typed into Google search to discover the zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. As we welcome the new year, we hope you enjoy this glimpse at the past.”

Michael Jackson was the fastest-rising global search term in 2009; we said goodbye to him too. My sister gave me the Thriller album one Christmas long ago. It was a bona fide vinyl record.

So too were Facebook and Twitter high in search volume in 2009. And Windows 7, before Microsoft decided to remove the Start button. Search volume also tells us there was a peanut butter recall that year – and Transformers the movie arrived on the big screen.

The social network Bebo was the fastest falling search term in 2009, though I didn’t see it on the list in 2008.  The volume makes sense, however, given Wikipedia says the company was acquired by AOL for $850 billion the previous year.

Even search follows the money.

From Struggle to Possibility

“2010 was a year of struggles,” read the opening of Google’s video citing terms like “European debt crisis” and “unemployment” while the GoodLife by OneRepublic played in the background. “And achievements,” the company added citing searches for the “synthetic genome” and the first-ever face transplant.

The Gulf Oil Spill.  The Haitian Earthquake. “Don’t call me Surely.” Or is it Shirley?  The iPhone 4 made the list – and so too did the Otterbox riding the Apple wave.

Most of the troops still in Iraq would touchdown home soon too — permanently. I hope it was not all for naught. There’s plenty of stories like that in Google News search.

My daughter was born in 2010. She is unbelievably remarkable. By definition, it’s not a selfie if there’s more than one person in the picture.

In 2011, I’d again find myself overseas, even as the Arab Spring swept North Africa and Rebecca Black went from 13 to 167 million. Mat Kearney’s soundtrack lay underneath Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist video, which the company hailed as the year of “possibility.”

We got him. It took a long time but we got him.  A Middle Eastern man near the shore of the Red Sea stopped me — and my colleagues to say “congratulations.” We didn’t stick around long to chat about it. The rules are different in peacekeeping; complacency invites risk.

We said goodbye to people – Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Ford, Andy Rooney, Steve Jobs – and to programs like the NASA Shuttle. In middle school, the teachers had gathered our class into the cafeteria to watch the Challenger take off.

Google+, the social networked ranked #2 in search volume. The 2011 Google Zeitgeist destination page was shared 23,000 times on Google+. By contrast, the 2012 Google Zeitgeist landing page has, as of now just 12,000 views.  There’s also a tweet button with no counter.

It reminded me of real-time search. But then who needs vanity metrics?

Austerity.  Felix Baumgartner jumped from space. Sandy ravaged the northeastern sea shores. The first person ever was cured of Aids.

That disease, that as a kid growing up, I once saw on the cover of Time Magazine in my parent’s living room. We couldn’t search for information about Aids then, at least not in the modern sense.  We started having classes on it in school: you couldn’t get it by just touching someone.

This leaves us at year’s end for 2013 and the 2013 Google Zeitgeist.  While, I wonder what the defining spirit might be in another 13 years, though I’m in no hurry to get there.  But here’s a toast to 2014.  And thanks for reading this stream of consciousness.

Search on.

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Photo credit: Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

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