Re: Fwd: Postcards From Planet Google

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Thu 28 Nov 2002 - 18:43:44 GMT

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    My God! What a tool for tracking the spread of memes through the global culture!


    >Postcards From Planet Google
    >MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.
    >AT Google's squat headquarters off Route 101, visitors sit in the lobby,
    >transfixed by the words scrolling by on the wall behind the receptionist's
    >desk: - animación japonese Harry Potter pensées et poèmes associação
    >brasileira de normas técnicas -
    >The projected display, called Live Query, shows updated samples of what
    >people around the world are typing into Google's search engine. The terms
    >scroll by in English, Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, Japanese, Korean, French,
    >Dutch, Italian - any of the 86 languages that Google tracks.
    >- people who shouldn't marry /"she smoked a cigar"/ mr. potatoheads in long
    >island /pickup lines to get women /auto theft fraud how to -
    >Stare at Live Query long enough, and you feel that you are watching the
    >collective consciousness of the world stream by.
    >Each line represents a thought from someone, somewhere with an Internet
    >connection. Google collects these queries - 150 million a day from more
    >than 100 countries - in its databases, updating and storing the computer
    >logs millisecond by millisecond.
    >Google is taking snapshots of its users' minds and aggregating them. Like a
    >flipbook that emerges when successive images are strung together, the
    >logged data tell a story.
    >So what is the world thinking about?
    >Sex, for one thing.
    >"You can learn to say 'sex' in a lot of different languages by looking at
    >the logs," said Craig Silverstein, director of technology at Google. (To
    >keep Live Query G-rated, Google filters out sex-related searches, though
    >less successfully with foreign languages.)
    >Despite its geographic and ethnic diversity, the world is spending much of
    >its time thinking about the same things. Country to country, region to
    >region, day to day and even minute to minute, the same topic areas bubble
    >to the top: celebrities, current events, products and computer downloads.
    >"It's amazing how similar people are all over the world based on what they
    >are searching for," said Greg Rae, one of three members of Google's logs
    >team, which is responsible for building, storing and protecting the data
    >Google's following - it is the most widely used search engine -- has given
    >Mr. Rae a worldview from his cubicle. Since October 2001, he has been able
    >to reel off "anthrax" in several languages: milzbrand (German), carbonchio
    >(Italian), miltvuur (Dutch), antrax (Spanish). He says he can also tell
    >which countries took their recent elections seriously (Brazil and Germany),
    >because of the frenzy of searches. He notes that the globalization of
    >consumer culture means that the most popular brands are far-flung in
    >origin: Nokia, Sony, BMW, Ferrari, Ikea and Microsoft.
    >Judging from Google's data, some sports events stir interest almost
    >everywhere: the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the Melbourne Cup horse race and
    >the World Series were all among the top 10 sports-related searches last
    >year. It also becomes obvious just how familiar American movies, music and
    >celebrities are to searchers across the globe. Two years ago, a Google
    >engineer named Lucas Pereira noticed that searches for Britney Spears had
    >declined, indicating what he thought must be a decline in her popularity.
    >From that observation grew Google Zeitgeist, a listing of the top gaining
    >and declining queries of each week and month.
    >Glancing over Google Zeitgeist is like taking a trivia test in cultural
    >literacy: Ulrika Jonsson (a Swedish-born British television host), made the
    >list recently, as did Irish Travelers (a nomadic ethnic group, one of whose
    >members was videotaped beating her young daughter in Indiana) and fentanyl
    >(the narcotic gas used in the Moscow raid to rescue hostages taken by
    >Chechen rebels in late October).
    >The long-lasting volume of searches involving her name has made Ms. Spears
    >something of a benchmark for the logs team. It has helped them understand
    >how news can cause spikes in searches, as it did when she broke up with
    >Justin Timberlake.
    >Google can feel the reverberations of such events, and others of a more
    >serious nature, immediately.
    >On Feb. 28, 2001, for example, an earthquake began near Seattle at 10:54
    >a.m. local time. Within two minutes, earthquake-related searches jumped to
    >250 a minute from almost none, with a concentration in the Pacific
    >Northwest. On Sept. 11, searches for the World Trade Center, Pentagon and
    >CNN shot up immediately after the attacks. Over the next few days,
    >Nostradamus became the top search query, fueled by a rumor that Nostradamus
    >had predicted the trade center's destruction.
    >But the most trivial events may also register on Google's sensitive
    >cultural seismic meter.
    >The logs team came to work one morning to find that "carol brady maiden
    >name" had surged to the top of the charts.
    >Curious, they mapped the searches by time of day and found that they were
    >neatly grouped in five spikes: biggest, small, small, big and finally,
    >after a long wait, another small blip. Each spike started at 48 minutes
    >after the hour.
    >As the logs were passed through the office, employees were perplexed. Why
    >would there be a surge in interest in a character from the 1970's sitcom
    >"The Brady Bunch"? But the data could only reflect patterns, not explain
    >That is a paradox of a Google log: it does not capture social phenomena per
    >se, but merely the shadows they cast across the Internet.
    >"The most interesting part is why," said Amit Patel, who has been a member
    >of the logs team. "You can't interpret it unless you know what else is
    >going on in the world."
    >So what had gone on on April 22, 2001?
    >That night the million-dollar question on the game show "Who Wants to Be a
    >Millionaire" had been, "What was Carol Brady's maiden name?" Seconds after
    >the show's host, Regis Philbin, posed the question, thousands flocked to
    >Google to search for the answer (Tyler), producing four spikes as the show
    >was broadcast successively in each time zone.
    >And that last little blip?
    >"Hawaii," Mr. Patel said.
    >The precision of the Carol Brady data was eye-opening for some.
    >"It was like trying an electron microscope for the first time," said Sergey
    >Brin, who as a graduate student in computer science at Stanford helped
    >found Google in 1998 and is now its president for technology. "It was like
    >a moment-by-moment barometer."
    >Predictably, Google's query data respond to television, movies and radio.
    >But the mass media also feed off the demands of their audiences. One of
    >Google's strengths is its predictive power, flagging trends before they hit
    >the radar of other media.
    >As such it could be of tremendous value to entertainment companies or
    >retailers. Google is quiet about what if any plans it has for
    >commercializing its vast store of query information. "There is tremendous
    >opportunity with this data," Mr. Silverstein said. "The challenge is
    >defining what we want to do."
    >The search engine Lycos, which produces a top 50 list of its most popular
    >searches, is already exploring potential commercial opportunities. "There
    >is a lot of interest from marketing people," said Aaron Schatz, who writes
    >a daily column on trends for Lycos. "They want to see if their product is
    >appearing. What is the next big thing?"
    >Google currently does not allow outsiders to gain access to raw data
    >because of privacy concerns. Searches are logged by time of day,
    >originating I.P. address (information that can be used to link searches to
    >a specific computer), and the sites on which the user clicked. People tell
    >things to search engines that they would never talk about publicly -
    >Viagra, pregnancy scares, fraud, face lifts. What is interesting in the
    >aggregate can be seem an invasiion of privacy if narrowed to an individual.
    >So, does Google ever get subpoenas for its information?
    >"Google does not comment on the details of legal matters involving Google,"
    >Mr. Brin responded.
    >In aggregate form, Google's data can make a stunning presentation. Next to
    >Mr. Rae's cubicle is the GeoDisplay, a 40-inch screen that gives a
    >three-dimensional geographical representation of where Google is being used
    >around the globe. The searches are represented by colored dots shooting
    >into the atmosphere. The colors - red, yellow, orange - convey the
    >impression of a globe whose major cities are on fire. The tallest flames
    >are in New York, Tokyo and the San Francisco Bay Area.
    >Pinned up next to the GeoDisplay are two charts depicting Google usage in
    >the United States throughout the day. For searches as a whole, there is a
    >single peak at 5 p.m. For sex-related searches, there is a second peak at
    >11 p.m.
    >Each country has a distinctive usage pattern. Spain, France and Italy have
    >a midday lull in Google searches, presumably reflecting leisurely lunches
    >and relaxation. In Japan, the peak usage is after midnight - an indication
    >that phone rates for dial-up modems drop at that time.
    >Google's worldwide scope means that the company can track ideas and
    >phenomena as they hop from country to country.
    >Take Las Ketchup, a trio of singing sisters who became a sensation in Spain
    >last spring with a gibberish song and accompanying knee-knocking dance
    >similar to the Macarena.
    >Like a series of waves, Google searches for Las Ketchup undulated through
    >Europe over the summer and fall, first peaking in Spain, then Italy, then
    >Germany and France.
    >"The Ketchup Song (Hey Hah)" has already topped the charts in 18 countries.
    >A ring tone is available for mobile phones. A parody of the song that mocks
    >Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for raising taxes has raced to the top of the
    >charts in Germany.
    >In late summer, Google's logs show, Las Ketchup searches began a strong
    >upward climb in the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.
    >Haven't heard of Las Ketchup?
    >If you haven't, Google predicts you soon will.
    >Copyright The New York Times Company
    >This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    >Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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