Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SATURDAY, MAY 13, 2006
MUMBAI, India Google lifted the veil this week on one of its best-kept secrets: which nations search for what.
Who looks up democracy most avidly? Who seeks out Allah or Christ most faithfully? Who types in “drugs” or “sex” most frequently?
No country’s secrets are spared.
Pakistanis look up “Danish cartoons” more avidly than anyone, according to Google. They also lead the rankings for “sex” – with their neighbor and nuclear rival India seldom far behind.
“In Pakistani society, sex is a taboo,” said Fatima Idrees, a project manager at the Pakistani affiliate of the Gallup International polling agency, adding that “curiosity and availability of the Internet may cause such behavior.”
The site introduced Thursday, Google Trends, measures how often particular phrases are searched for from computers in individual countries and cities. It short-lists the places with the highest absolute number of searches for, say, “cat food.” Then it picks the top 10 or so based on which places look up “cat food” much more than they do other things – for instance, “dog food.”
The Google Trends site is likely to generate a mix of consternation, embarrassment and laughter around the world. While Google emphasizes that its efforts to protect individuals’ privacy, the new site does nothing to protect the collective privacy of nations, if such a thing exists – the right of the British to conceal that they look up “handcuffs” most often, or the right of China’s leaders to hide that Mandarin ranks second only to English as the language used to look up “democracy,” or the right of other officials to hide that Arabic-speaking users rarely look up “democracy.”
“This is a fascinating project, effortlessly offering a glimpse into regional and cultural habits and differences that is otherwise nearly impossible to reproduce,” said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University.
“This sort of feature reminds us that the Internet is global, yet not one undifferentiated mass,” he added. “Such measurement may help us understand the origin and movement of ideas as they sweep regions and the world.”
The Google rankings also generate a new kind of interest-level rating for politicians – as for countries, brands or anything else people look up. Now, the most vain (and most regularly searched) among us can check how many people are looking us up, where they are from – and, most important, whether they search more for us or for our rivals.
In India, suspicions that Sonia Gandhi is the power behind the throne of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appear to be buttressed by search results. As the leader of India’s governing Congress Party, Gandhi gets about 50 percent more searches from Indian users than Singh does.
French users, meanwhile, shed light on France’s power struggles. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy draws as many searches on his own as his rivals, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, combined.
For politicians with sagging poll numbers, Google’s index might be some consolation: it records how often people look you up, not whether they love you. To bring Machiavelli’s famous formulation into the age of Web surfing, it may be better for a prince – or president or prime minister – to be searched than loved, if he cannot be both.
President George W. Bush commands at least seven times as many searches in Russia as its own leader, Vladimir Putin. Among the French, Bush generates about 50 percent more look-ups than Chirac; among Iranians, Bush is searched twice as often as the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Not everything on the site is a surprise. People in Boston and Minneapolis and in Halifax, Nova Scotia, lead the search for “mittens.” Dubliners top the list in “Guinness” searches. When it comes to looking up “dowry,” surfers in Pakistan and India are clear leaders.
Other findings are quirkier, and at times to difficult to explain.
Even though homosexuality is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom ranks No. 2 for searches for “gay sex,” behind the Philippines.
And consider the list of cities that most frequently look up “amour,” the French word for love. Paris, allegedly a romantic haven, is absent from the top 10. The top three berths went to Rabat, Morocco; Algiers and Tunis.
Other findings suggest the stirrings of a trend. Searchers for “Allah” come overwhelmingly from the Islamic world. But, in a sign of shifting social realities, the word is searched from the Dutch-language version of Google more avidly than from the Arabic-language one. Norwegian, French, Danish, Swedish and German sites also featured in the top 10 for “Allah” inquiries.
“Guns” is a word easy to associate with the United States. But the rising incidence of violent kidnappings and murders in Latin America has perhaps driven searchers to the Web for answers. Buenos Aires leads the cities index for “guns” searches, and Argentina as a whole outranks the United States, with Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru also in the top 10.
The Google system can also be queried one country at a time, to determine, for example, how frequently people in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are looking up “democracy.” The Bush administration is unlikely to be pleased by Google’s reply for each of those countries: “Your terms – democracy – do not have enough search volume to show graphs.”