Sex Beats Money, Hitler Beats Gandhi: More Google Insights

Unlike my previous post on Google Insight statistics for anthropology searches, this time I am not making the mistake of closing the pages without preserving a link so that others can investigate the searches. Having conducted a number of queries using Google Insights, I realize that I risk becoming addicted to this service, with the greater risk of forgetting to ask some very critical questions about the meanings of these results. Nonetheless, here are a few more interesting results.

For example, I was curious to learn if a lot of people search for Adolf Hitler, that is, how popular he might remain as a historical figure, as compared to someone who I believe was genuinely loved by a far greater number of people, Mahatma Gandhi. The meaning of the results is not by any means unambiguous. What is interesting is that the popularity of the “Adolf Hitler,” and Hitler- and Nazi-related searches, is still vastly greater than for Gandhi. At the same time, the interest in Gandhi is steady, almost a straight line on the graph, while for Hitler the fluctuations are extreme, and the peaks seem to recur at the same time each year (is there a Hitler holiday?). (See the overall results here.)

Relative regional popularity for "Adolf Hitler" (blue) and "Mahatma Gandhi" (red), worldwide, for 2004-2009
Comparative worldwide popularity of online searches for "Adolf Hitler" (blue) and "Mahatma Gandhi" (red), for 2004-2009

Hitler is relatively more popular in web searches in Norway, Germany, and Nigeria, in that order. Gandhi, on the other hand, is most popular in India, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates (I assume the reason for the UAE being third is due to the presence of a large number of Indian workers). Gandhi is not just of interest along strict religious lines either, since the next top three areas of interest are Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and El Salvador, all three being predominantly Roman Catholic.

Relative regional interest in "Adolf Hitler," 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "Adolf Hitler," 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "Mahatma Gandhi," 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "Mahatma Gandhi," 2004-2009

Having heard for sometime that “sex” and sex-related searches far outstripped any other searches conducted by web users, I had to check if relatively more searches for sex were registered compared with other burning issues of interest, both here in North America, and to varying extents worldwide. I thus compared sex with money, terrorism, and god. The results were surprising, to some degree. (See the overall results here.)

Sex, by very far, is a more popular search term than even money, terrorism, and god combined. Moreover, these interests seem to be stable in each case, which to me suggests that there is less room for ambiguity on the matter. That does not put all questions to rest, as the results cover up a great deal of complexity that ethnographic approaches would be better at uncovering.

Worldwide popularity of "sex" in online searches, 2004-2009
Worldwide popularity of "sex" (blue), "money" (red), "terrorism" (orange), and "god" (green) in online searches, 2004-2009

What is interesting is that sex is the subject of greatest interest in Pakistan, Vietnam, and Bangladesh — and interestingly Sudan is in the top 10. Money is a prominent subject of online interest in the United Kingdom, the United States, and India. What about terrorism, which in my mind was a subject of especially intense interest in North America? No North American country ranks in the top 10. The top three are Pakistan, Ethiopia, and India. Trinidad and Tobago, where I did my research for several years, is ranked at 7.  When it comes to searching for god online, here the Caribbean dominates among the top three places with a popular interest in god: Jamaica, the Philippines, and Trinidad and Tobago, in that order. For me this is very interesting — after years of endless condemnations by local priests and media commentators on what they perceived to be the “lazy,” “carefree,” and “sexually debauched” lifestyle of Trinidadians, their Internet habits show that they are most interested in god, and terrorism, rather than sex and money — living in fear, rather than living in joy?

Relative regional interest in "sex" searches online, 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "sex" searches online, 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "money" in online searches, 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "money" in online searches, 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "terrorism" in online searches, 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "terrorism" in online searches, 2004-2009
Relative regional interest in "god" in online searches, 2004-2009. Note that the Jamaica (#1) and Trinidad & Tobago (#3), do not appear clearly on this map.
Relative regional interest in "god" in online searches, 2004-2009. Note that Jamaica (#1) and Trinidad & Tobago (#3), do not appear clearly on this map.

Questions, more than conclusions

It is not surprising that ethnographers should prefer to interact with living individuals, one on one, and spend large amounts of time learning about their everyday lives and immersing themselves in as much of their realities as possible. Looking at these statistics, by themselves, could lead one to arrive at some rather bizarre conclusions; they could also be the basis for some exciting new questions, both for online and offline ethnography.

For example, since the statistics show the relative interest in a given term for a given population, one has to ask: who tends to have greater Internet access in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan, with such large Muslim populations and such an interest in sex online? Sudan, in the grips of a civil war, has individuals searching for sex online in great numbers? Why? Is it to target something to ban, or is it a relief from death and conflict? Why is Hitler apparently so popular in Norwegian web searches — is it related to some of the aesthetics of “death metal” and “black metal”? Or is there a genuine social interest in Hitler broadly speaking? (I am worried of course that as a result of such statistics some might rush to the conclusion that “Norwegians are a bunch of Nazis…and Germans are at least closet Nazis.”)

What kind of “sex” are people looking for? Does it necessarily imply “pornography” (which is not a concept that is either universal in usage or meaning)? Given the industrialization of sex, through prostitution, films, strip clubs, and human trafficking, how are “sex” and “money” so easily and widely separated in the results shown above?

That a nation has relatively more people interested in “terrorism” means what? That they fear it, or that they feel they have been pinpointed in the international media as a source of it, and therefore persons check to see what is being said about their country with reference to “terrorism”? For example, given the high rate of rejection faced by Trinidadians applying for U.S. visas, the presence of groups such as the Jama’at al Muslimeen in Trinidad, and the tendency of other nations to produce travel advisories that could affect local tourism, might it be that this is the reason for such a seemingly heavy Trinidadian interest in terrorism, rather than an expression of their own “fear,” or that they might share the “national security” mindset of Washington elites?

In addition, these search statistics are based on the English words that were used, as far as I know, unless Google is providing automatic translation so as to compile globally comprehensive results (I am not aware of their doing this for these purposes). If, as I suspect, a search for “sex” is a search for sex in English, then the question that presents itself is of the “native point of view.” Is “sex” a popular search term for most Vietnamese, or just for the few who speak English, or for the few Anglophone expatriates living there who conduct their online searches in English? Or is “sex” universally used as an online search term, regardless of users’ native languages, since they might feel that the English search term might bring up more results? In addition, it seems that a particular search term must achieve a substantial (though unspecified) measure of popularity for the term to even appear in Google Insights’ results — therefore, would there be enough Anglophone expatriates in Vietnam searching for “sex” in English to account for the strong relative popularity of the search term there?

By choosing “sex” myself, and discovering that in comparison to other places that also search for “sex” Pakistan ranks highly, does that tell us anything about the overall value of “sex” in Pakistani online searches as a whole? No, because I do not know what are the top Internet search terms used by Pakistani web users, nor would I know what their particular interest in sex is (what if it is about the sexual reproduction of horses?), or whether it is about sex as a category rather than as an act. Moreover, other, more comprehensive and detailed studies of Internet pornography and sex statistics clearly show U.S. dominance in production of pornographic sites, which is what I expected,  with China being the world leader in pornography revenues, while a greater variety of sex search terms show that Bolivia and South Africa can appear to be leaders in searches (see here).

And what happened to the “borderless” world of “globalization” and “cultural flows”? Of course most of us knew this to be hype, even when produced by anthropologists for the consumption of other anthropologists. Borders, boundaries and barriers matter more than ever in our world. But do they matter so much that the interest in “sex” stops at Pakistan’s border with India?

Addendum:

Why does Ethiopia appear so frequently, both in these results and in the results shown in the previous post? Is this some sort of statistical anomaly that is the by product of Google Insights’ own particular ways of scaling and normalizing data?

12 thoughts on “Sex Beats Money, Hitler Beats Gandhi: More Google Insights

  1. are there any statistics that show which countries tend to use google most and which prefer using other search engines (i.e. if the Congolese prefer using yahoo or some other search engine, and also if those people who use google belong to a certain population group?)

  2. That is a good question, because it is another limiting factor — all of the above is for Google alone, and it works well as long as the assumption that most people use Google holds (and I don’t know that it does). I will look and see if I find anything about the geographic distribution of search engine preferences, and see if any of the others are also accumulating statistics of their own.

  3. Benjamin, so far this is the very little that I found:

    In the Asia-Pacific region, YAHOO! is apparently the leading search engine:
    http://blog.searchenginewatch.com/070711-153818

    The top search engine in China is,
    http://www.baidu.com/

    —————————–

    With reference to popular search terms:

    What is also interesting is the top searches by Chinese web users, which are very far from any of the terms I examined in this post:
    http://www.pcworld.com/article/155169/google_unveils_chinas_2008_most_popular_search_terms.html

    Dogpile has a running list of “what the rest of the world is searching for,” although it seems to be all in English:
    http://www.dogpile.com/info.dogpl/searchspy/

  4. hey max,
    thanks for the insight ! – although I havent found a “yahoo insights statisic” button to compare with the google thing yet, but probably we wont have to wait so long until sth similar is available. Still I do believe one has to go into much more detail to really come to greater general conclusions – one search theme at a time.

  5. Yes, I definitely agree with you. For now one of the more useful things about these Google statistics is that they allow us some insight into how one major search engine systematically locates and compartmentalizes signs, and the potential for users (including, perhaps especially businesses and governments) to develop schemes based on what they perceive as generalizable and incontrovertible data. It’s the kind of material that, if one had ever given up on ethnography, one would now feel compelled to return to it.

    Aside from that, this might be a useful device for generating some new hypotheses, and a few came to mind as I was reviewing these various stats.

    Many thanks for your comments, much appreciated.

  6. Thanks very much — that explains the peak recurring each year at the same time. It’s also interesting that individuals would search Hitler especially on his birthday, as if engaging in commemoration. Again, one cannot be sure, at this distance. Thanks again.

  7. This is one of the most interesting blog posts I have come on in a long time. I can suggest one way to resolve at least one of the many questions you raised above. Do a google search for “sexe” (the French term) and “sexo” (the Spanish one). I suspect that Google would kick our results for each of these that were very similar to searching for the English term. But I really don’t know. I’m going to try the experiment myself.

  8. Well, I did the experiment, and my hypothesis was wrong. The French term kicked out “only” 46.4 million hits with little cross reference to “sex”. The Spanish term “sexo” kicked out 98.1 million hits with even less cross reference to the English term. The English term “sex” generated 750 million hits. Obviously Google doesn’t lump all similar terms togeteher just because the first 3 letters are the same, at least in this case. An eye opener for me. The question of whether English, as the most popular second language in the world, might gather hits from many countries where it is used as a lingua franca is, of course, still quite open. From personal experience I quite often see people coming to my blog using English (and occasional French) terms when they are obviously not native English speakers. I don’t think that one can generailze about the proportion of “expatriates” in a given country just because the searchers choose to use an English term to search.
    Still, good luck on your research. It opens up a wide field for inquiry, and I found it quite interesting.

  9. Thanks very much Pat. I had also wondered about whether Google would recognize the terms as distinct, as it sometimes finds results for misspelled terms that are almost identical to the ones that are correctly spelled, and I thought Google might treat “sexo” as a typographic error. Then again, if millions of people are producing web pages, and doing searches, using that very word, then the results are likely to be more credible.

    The possible uses of these tracking statistics are almost endless — you can compare authors, movements, events, places, phenomena, all in terms of relative user interest. However, there must be sufficient numbers of searches (Google does not yet say how many) using whatever term for that term to be registered by Google. My name, for example, does not register for the purposes of Google Insights, but “Michael Jackson” certainly would, even if inclusive of all Michael Jacksons in the world.

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