Google Suggest reveals what we're searching for.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 3 2007 6:08 PM

What Are We Searching For?

The answers to today's crossword, Jewish baseball players, testicular comfort, and the right way to pronounce "Reuters."

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Google Toolbar also led me to the unsurprising discovery that people cheat on the New York Times crossword puzzle. I learned this fact while cheating on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Bedeviled by 48-Down, I began to type in the clue. I only got as far as "godfrey's w" before Google filled in the rest: "Godfrey's Woman in My Man Godfrey." When I punched in "canada's bat" the same thing happened—the scofflaws before me had already inquired about "Canada's Battle of Fort _____, 1866."

After a couple of months of serendipitous delights, I decided to use Suggest to conduct a serious study of human behavior. Google Toolbar makes it easy to practice armchair sociology—just conjure the first half of any question or statement, and Google fills in the back end. Want to know what questions are flummoxing mankind? Type in "is it true that." The fourth suggestion: "is it true that if you don't use it you lose it." The fifth: "is it true that ciara is a man." Enter "how bad is" to figure out everything the English-speaking world thinks might not be OK: smoking, followed by global warming, soda, marijuana, and McDonald's.


The Google Toolbar can also be a handy tool for teasing out sexual politics. Strip out the movie and song titles, and these are the top searches that begin with "my girlfriend is": a bitch, pregnant, crazy, hot, fat, depressed, getting fat. Compare with the top results for "my boyfriend is": an asshole, an alcoholic, depressed, mean, married, hot. For what it's worth, "my mom is" combines the worst of both: hot, a bitch, crazy, amazing, mean, my hero, depressed, pregnant, an alcoholic. Human relations look blissful, though, compared with the piteous list of searches that start with "my dog is": sick, limping, throwing up, constipated, not eating, shaking, coughing, vomiting, and eating grass. At least the last one is "my dog is cuter than your dog."

Sometimes we turn to search engines when we have nowhere else to go for counsel. To wit, Google Suggest overflows with pregnancy anxiety. The top two results for "how do you know": how do you know if your  pregnant, how do you know if you are pregnant. (In sixth place is "how do you know if you are in love.") A search for "can I eat" reveals the items that pregnant women fear the most: feta cheese, sushi, honey, mayonnaise, prawns, lobster, peanut butter, shrimp, and tuna.

Google does take a bit of fun out of the suggestion game with its version of the Hays Code. Searching for "my balls" is fine. (No 1 answer: "my balls hurt.") "My penis," though, returns no suggestions. Same thing for "boobs," "hardcore," "porno," and, well, you get the idea. Google also appears to have removed its suggestions for "blacks are"—a disturbing list that a blogger captured in 2005.

I'm sure the scrubbing helps, but through the lens of Google Suggest, mankind doesn't come off as evil or prurient. Rather, Suggest creates an endearing portrait of a throng of befuddled seekers. Perhaps my favorite find is the list of suggestions generated by a search for "how do you pronounce": siobhan, nguyen, sudoku, reuters, yeats, goethe, cannes, porsche, ubuntu. That's the best list of frequently mangled words that I've ever seen. It's also a helpful reminder that when we search, we are not alone. There are a million other doofuses who can't say sudoku either.


Got a favorite Google suggestion? Send tips, observations, and transcendentally weird word assocations to (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)



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