Hot links, cool trends on the Web

Five years ago, the highest-ranking Net searches included "Star Trek" and "megahertz." Now make room for Shakira, "Hulk" star Eric Bana and high-school basketball star LeBron James.

3 min read
Japanese anime character Dragonball is the hottest Internet trend for the second year in a row, and Natalie Portman has unseated Angelina Jolie among popular celebrities on the Web, according to data from top Internet search sites.

Those are just some of the findings from the search sites, which recently released figures on the most popular search terms of year. Anime, celebrities and music topped the wish list of Internet surfers in 2002, an indication that that young people are among the most active Web searchers. Marketers watch the terms closely because words entered into search engines can help them track, and even predict, tastes and trends among the culture at large.

"If you read the listings, you're hip to pop culture," said Lycos Top 50 author Aaron Schatz, who claims that online search terms reveal fashions and fads long before they're apparent in the offline world.

But that hasn't always been the case. Five years ago, the top searches included phrases like "Star Trek" and "megahertz," said Michael Gartenberg, a Jupiter Research analyst. Now semiconductors are making room for Shakira.

"It certainly tracks the transformation of what was once primarily a clubhouse for techies and geek aficionados to something that is 100 percent mainstream," Gartenberg said. "Mr. Spock has been replaced with Britney."

Singing diva Britney Spears turned up in the top 10 of the Lycos 50 during 2002, along with Pamela Anderson. And according to Google, pop singer Shakira is second only to Spider-Man when it comes to garnering more searches this year than the year before. And Natalie Portman is climbing the Google search charts while Angelina Jolie is declining.

Each of the major search sites track search tends slightly differently, but together, their findings point to a younger, more mainstream audience. Lycos filters out generic words and compiles terms based on the number of searches. Topping the Lycos list is Dragonball, a Japanese anime, followed by Kazaa, Tatoos, Britney Spears and Morpheus.

Move over, Napster
Google's Zeitgeist includes a listing of the top gaining and declining queries, reflecting whether a certain star or phenomenon is on the way in or out. Spider-Man topped the gainers while Nostradamus, which was the focus of many Sept. 11 hoaxes, and defunct file-swapping service Napster, led decliners for the year.

But the demise of Napster hasn't killed the public's taste for unauthorized music files, according to search term trends. Kazaa and Morpheus repeatedly show up among the top search terms. Pressplay and MusicNet--music sites backed by the major labels--do not.

"No matter how hard the music industry wants to kill file-swapping, they never will," predicted Lycos' Schatz.

Schatz said search terms also are reflecting the increased Web activity of teenage girls. Anything related to the prom or a young, male actor is on the rise, he said. "It's really amazing how many searches those heart-throbby actors get," said Schatz, who lists "Hulk" star Eric Bana and high-school basketball star LeBron James as hot commodities for the coming year.

Yahoo, which keeps a Buzz Index of popular Web trends, also tries to use the terms to predict what will be hot and not in the years ahead. Stephanie Blair, managing surfer at Yahoo, said celebrities and movies will continue their rise in popularity. "I think people are definitely learning about and connecting to entertainment," she said.

According to search terms climbing the Buzz Index, 2003 promises to be a banner year for movies like "The Hulk" and "Daredevil," reality television such as "The Bachelorette," music artists Nivea and 50 Cent, and "The Sims Online" game.

One interesting year-end finding came from AltaVista, which unlike most other search sites does not filter out generic terms. According to the site, the word "sex"--always a top search term on the Web--posted the biggest decline among surfers during the holiday season.