According to Google, Felix Baumgartner is one of the top five trending celebrities in Canada for 2012 (image courtesy Felix Baumgartner)

Crunching 2012 Google search trends: data analysis expert

That little white Internet search box is more of a door than a window, says Professor Periklis Andritsos, a data mining expert at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information Studies.

Google recently released its most searched and trending terms from 2012—trending meaning new top searches since 2011. At first glance, these Internet searches seem to present an intimate snapshot of our cultural psyche, from our desires (Canada’s top music search: One Direction) to our obsessions (Canada’s top food search: bacon) and our worries (Canada’s top ‘what is…’ search: what is love?).

But those top search results aren’t as revealing as they might seem, Andritsos says.

“The Google results are nothing more than a reflection of people’s daily lifestyle,” says Andritsos. “Our top Google search results show that Canadians are a lot about music, we are a lot about sports. In Italy you will see a lot of searches about love-making and art… it reveals a lot about people’s lives.”

To understand the real value of the Google search trends, Andritsos says, it takes more than computer-generated analytics to know what people are really seeking.

For example, the most popular “how to” search in Canada for 2012 was “how to rock.” With Canada’s musical history including the likes of Neil Young, Rush, and Arcade Fire, the popularity of that search was surprising to Andritsos.

“Canadians already know how to rock,” he says.

When he Googled the phrase, Andritsos discovered that “How To Rock” is a sitcom from Nickelodeon.

“Here you can see how, on a positive note, humans are never going to be replaced,” he says. “I have to bring in knowledge in order to know these two terms are the same.

“A computer wouldn’t be able to tell which ‘how to rock’ I’m searching for. I need extra human knowledge and analysis to tell me that.”

Perhaps the more useful way of viewing these 2012 results, says Andritsos, is not to analyze who we are now, but to consider what the searches suggest about who we might be in the future.

“Can I learn something from these searches’ historical data and predict the future?” he asks. “That has a big impact.”

Andritsos noted the implications from public health (Google currently uses search trends to map flu outbreaks worldwide) to politics (the Obama campaign tracked voter support by analysing their web cookie data) to commercial opportunities:

“My life is going to be put on autopilot one day,” he says. “I’m going to have my groceries in front of my door before I even think of what I’m missing from my fridge.”

“With the big data explosion that exists out there, the ability to combine data from many different sources—my computer, my cellphone, my loyalty card at the supermarket, my Google searches—somebody’s going to be able to tell, tomorrow he’s going to buy this CD because he likes this particular music, so why don’t I send an email to him about it?”

Still curious about those top searches? Here is a selection from the Google 2012 Zeitgeist report:

Trending Searches in Canada

1.       Pinterest
2.       Hurricane Sandy
3.       Olympics
4.       Diablo 3
5.       Gangnam Style

Trending Celebrities in Canada

1.       Whitney Houston
2.       Jeremy Lin
3.       Michael Clarke Duncan
4.       Morgan Freeman
5.       Felix Baumgartner

Trending “What is…” in Canada

1.       What is Love
2.       What is SOPA
3.       What is Gluten
4.       What is Yolo
5.       What is Instagram

Trending “What is…” in South Africa

1.       What is love
2.       What is poverty
3.       What is illuminati
4.       What is cancer
5.       What is HIV

Trending “What is…” in United Kingdom

1.       What is love
2.       What is iCloud
3.       What is 3g
4.       What is scientology
5.       What is instagram

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