A Search for Ourselves

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Here's a way to test your Web savvy: Have you searched for the word Bebo?

On Google's annual top 10 list of the hottest search words and phrases, Bebo -- an online social network that's popular in Britain and starting to gain traction in the United States -- took the top spot, followed by MySpace, World Cup, Metacafe and Radioblog.

Each year, Google, the most popular search engine, releases an annual "zeitgeist" of the search terms that gained the most in usage in 2006, giving the world a peek behind its bare-bones home page and a window into the world's mind. This year, in addition to the predictable current events, celebrities and trends summing up 2006, Google's list seems to support the idea behind Time magazine's Person of the Year award, which was given to "You."

The top search terms were words related to user-generated content, such as blogs, social networking sites and podcasts.

Metacafe is a competitor to YouTube, the leading online video site, which surprisingly did not make Google's global top 10 list, while Radioblog is a tool used for streaming audio on a Web site.

"Zeitgeist, to us, is a measure of the pushpins in the bulletin board of worldwide understanding of what we want to know," said Douglas Merrill, Google's vice president of engineering, who analyzes the most rapidly growing search terms every week for clues about the online world's interests. "It's things in the world we want to care about."

In terms of news, the world is unequivocally interested in Paris Hilton, the socialite celebrity who topped Google's most-searched-for on the search engine's news site, which posts the most current news stories from a variety of outlets. Hilton was followed by actor Orlando Bloom and then cancer.

This year's news list contained a hodgepodge of topics, from serious to frivolous. Podcasting came in at No. 4, followed by Hurricane Katrina and bankruptcy. The list continues with Martina Hingis, a tennis star; autism; the NFL draft; and "Celebrity Big Brother."

"It shows exactly what the Web does brilliantly: It unites the famous and infamous and high and low culture," said Lucian James, president of Agenda Inc., a pop-culture branding company in San Francisco. "It shows how quickly the Web creates new things and recycles old ideas."

Among those who type their searches in the form of a question, there's interest in current events and prescription drugs. Aside from Hezbollah, which came in first, users were looking for definitions of carisoprodol (a muscle relaxant), acyclovir (an antiviral medication used to slow the growth of herpes), alprazolam (an anti-anxiety medication) and Xenical (a drug that reduces fat absorption). Also in the top 10 was a request for the definition of Ajax, a computer technology for building interactive Web applications.

The list of "how to" questions typed into Google's search box shows that Web surfers want to know more about creating their own online content. At the top of the list was "how to refinance," a reflection of the changing real estate market. But after that, users were interested in knowing how to wiki, podcast and blog.

Google said its annual list does not reflect the most-searched-for terms by volume; rather, it selects the fastest-growing search terms and removes those that are always very popular, such as searches for Web sites that host free e-mail accounts or adult content. Google does not reveal how many searches it takes to reach the top 10, but it said millions of searches are conducted each day.

"We view Google as the entryway for things to the Internet," Merrill said. "We're looking for things that have changed this year and what's new and interesting."

One larger trend, Merrill said, is that this year's Google searches reflect more of an international audience -- the eighth-fastest-growing search term this year was "rebelde," the name of a popular Spanish-language soap opera and a Mexican pop band.

The list also sheds some light on how people are using Google beyond just searching. Bebo and MySpace appearing in the No. 1 and No. 2 positions doesn't necessarily mean that people are trying to learn more about the social networking sites, Google said. Instead, many people choose to type the name of the Web site into the search box rather than type the Web address into the browser.

John Battelle, author of "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture," said the list shows that young people conduct a high volume of Internet searches and explains how they use the search engine.

"For a very large number of people, Google is the navigational tool, not the navigational bar at the top" of a Web browser, he said. Up to 20 percent of all searches are used as a means to get to a specific Web site, not to find information, he said.

Battelle said Google's annual list is a "tease" of all that Google knows about Internet users and their habits. The list "makes you think, 'Wow, what do they know that we don't know, and how powerful the company is to have this information and refine their products and services based on those answers,' " Battelle said.

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