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A day seen through Google searches

Google Hot Searches allows one to see a list of trending searches--an edited one--and gain at least a little insight into the mood and interests of the public.

Google likes to think of itself as the world's information barometer, the most complete repository of human intent as measured by the Internet search query. Around every hour it updates a list of the queries it has determined are spiking disproportionately due to breaking news, seasonal holidays, or pop culture phenomena.

Google has recently started to promote this list more prominently than in the past, with a weekly Google Beat YouTube series and frequent references to trending topics on its official blog. But how does something become a trend on Google? We spent yesterday monitoring the U.S. version of Google Trends, several major network television shows, and the discussion boards of the day to try to figure out what sparks a trend big enough for Google to notice.

Here's a few of the searches that went into overdrive yesterday, and the real-world events that led to their rise.

7:45 a.m. PDT: wilmington Trust, thanksgiving wallpaper, where do i vote

America's money was on its mind the morning after Halloween, as Google users pondered the merger of two major banks: Wilmington Trust and M&T Bank, one of which, Wilmington, was in dire straits due to bad investments in real-estate construction. Both terms ranked in the top five Google Searches at this hour, along with two terms that would remain themes for the day: Thanksgiving (now that Halloween is over) and today's mid-term elections in the U.S., with many people attempting to find their polling place on Google.

Google Trends is not simply a list of the most popular searches conducted on Google. If not, porn and weather-related queries would probably dominate the list. Instead, it's a list of topics that people are talking about in disproportionate numbers to the usual number of queries for that subject, and it involves two aspects: Google Hot Topics and Google Hot Searches.

For the purposes of this exercise, we focused on Google Hot Searches, which is a measure of searches actually conducted on Google as opposed to Google Hot Topics, which is a combination of messages on social-media services like Twitter, and news stories.

10:10 a.m. PDT: discover card, comic con 2011, stephanie powers
Stefanie Powers

News that Discover was doubling rebates on purchases during the holiday season sent searchers looking for more information on the offer, boosting Discover into the top Hot Searches position. It's the first day to register for Comic Con, the annual comic book geekfest in San Diego, and those looking to purchase tickets surged onto Google. (Technical problems due to volume actually knocked registration offline) And remember Stefanie Powers from Hart to Hart? She's got a book out, and an appearance on the Today Show to promote that book lifted her name into the top 10 searches as people struggled to remember why she was famous, as well as how to spell her name.

Google says there are more than 1 billion searches a day on its Web site. Many of those are rote searches for things like hotels or recipes, but the an awfully high number are clearly driven by events in the world.

In a way, this is a testament to Google's power, in that when people hear news about something (a bank merger, a superhero convention, or a disgruntled wide receiver) they flock to Google for more information on that topic. But it's also interesting in that many queries are driven by whatever people are watching on television or listening to on the radio, as with the Stefanie Powers query rising up the list.

2 p.m. PDT: randy moss cut, voting locations by zip code, elizabeth smart

Stunning news out of Minnesota that talented but mercurial wide receiver Randy Moss had been cut by the Minnesota Vikings vaulted his name to the top of Google's Hot Searches, as millions (including myself) checked Google to confirm the news after hearing it from a friend. Voting queries continue to dominate the results, and apparently inspired someone to create this off-color guide to polling places. And the trial of the man who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart 8 years ago began in Utah, and was a prominent feature on almost all morning news and talk shows.

Google Trends has evolved from a labs project to a source of information used by many companies around the world. There are several motivations in using Google Trends: news organizations attempt to figure out what people are searching for as to get stories on those topics out onto the Web, in hopes of getting some of that search traffic directed their way.

But the service is also a godsend for spammers. On just about every search trend identified during yesterday's exercise, there were a few Web sites featured on the Google Hot Searches page purporting to be news sites that were simply inserting the query language somewhere onto their Web page in hopes of getting sucked up into the search vortex. Google at least appeared to have learned its lesson about malware providers, but has another battle on its hands with the content farms.

Savvy promoters also know how closely Google and news organizations watch the list and have been known to orchestrate mass Google searches in order to get their cause on that list. The Alex Jones Show does this regularly, picking articles they want to promote and directing listeners to search for a phrase in the headline in order to drive traffic to the story.

6:11 p.m. PDT: yoga studios, coffee shops, golf courses

Somewhat bizarrely as night fell in California, Google Hot Searches spiked with the above benign search queries, three-quarters of which were determined to come from the small town of Sanger, Calif., outside of Fresno. What was it that led seemingly everyone in Sanger (population 18,000) to search for those terms? Who knows.

Google declined to provide more information for this story on how Google Trends works to establish this list. It's a fascinating--if somewhat misleading--look at the zeitgeist each day and actually has the potential with better spam detection to divide the news cycle even further into mere hours.

However, it's clear that Google is scrubbing the list to present only content that has been deemed suitable for the masses. This is a tougher call than it may seem, as Google's going to get criticized one way or another for either sanitizing search results beyond all meaning or exposing minors and overly sensitive people to prurient content.

But that means there is another dimension to Google Trends that Google chose not to address: just how it deems certain search trends worthy of discussion. Google's search log is one of the most interesting collections of data on human behavior in the world, and while it's willing to offer up certain morsels from time to time, it's clear that's a heavily edited list.