Let's have fun with the Google search box.

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Nov. 2 2009 9:36 AM

Awkward Suggestions

Let's have fun with the Google search box.

The Google search box has become the new oracle at Delphi, the thing we consult before all major undertakings. How do I know this?

How Do I

Through Google Suggest, of course. For the complete take on Suggest, read my colleague Josh Levin in Slate. For those who don't know how Suggest works, he sums it up nicely:

Google doesn't reveal its search algorithms, but the company's engineers confirm that what we're looking at in [Google Suggest] is, essentially, a list of the most popular queries that start with a given prefix. (It's unclear what time period the suggestions are culled during, but a spokesman says they're generated from "recent [search] activity.") A suggestion-enabled search is like an instant popularity contest. Just type in a couple of letters, and you've got access to oodles of data on what your fellow Web surfers are hunting for.

To wit: Google Suggest is a helpful feature. It's a little sliver of the collective mind. It's also a lot of fun to mess with.

The Internet has lots of great examples of misfires served by Google. Here's a favorite: "i am extremely terrified of chinese people." But I was most impressed with this anonymous bit of genius dug up by Digg, which uses Google for some armchair sociolinguistic analysis. The graphic compares "less intelligent" queries with "more intelligent" queries, such as "how 2" with "how might one:"

How 2

vs.

How Might One

You can spend entire afternoons duplicating this experiment:

What Is Up With

Compared with:

How Is It That

Grammar also seems to make a difference:

You Is

vs.

You Are

Perhaps "less intelligent" vs. "more intelligent" isn't the kindest or most accurate way to classify these queries. Some of the "more intelligent" queries are clearly high-schoolers desperately trying to get their homework done. And some of the "less intelligent" queries are no doubt very smart people distracting themselves with Google in an idle moment. But let's not allow nuance to get in the way of contest. Send me your best example of a "less intelligent" vs. a "more intelligent" query at michaelagger1@gmail.com. The winner will receive my undying gratitude and whatever Slate item in their size that I can find lying around the office. (No umbrellas left, sorry.) I'll announce the winner next week.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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