Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: Google Pac-Man's Supposed $120 Million Productivity Tab

Last Updated May 27, 2010 9:14 AM EDT

Remember way back last Friday, when Google (rather curiously) celebrated Pac-Man's 30th birthday by turning its homepage logo into a playable table? Who knew such a cutesy move could have "tragic" consequences?

According to RescueTime, a service that tracks how users spend their time, everyone who visited Google that day spent an average of 36 seconds longer on the page -- or 4.8 million hours of our collective time. The "tragic" cost to our planet: $120 million in lost productivity.

Needless to say, the blogosphere has gone fairly ape-shit over this. Bad Google! How could you knowingly, intentionally, maliciously do such a thing to the world you supposedly love?

Just one problem: RescueTime's conclusions are bull.

Actually, I can't argue with the company's numbers (mostly because I'm bad at math), which are based on a "repository of hundreds of millions of man hours of second-by-second attention data." That seems like a solid foundation on which to base your calculations.

My problem is this: It's all assumption. The author repeatedly says things like, "I'd wager," "I imagine," and "If we assume that our user base is representative." The word "if" appears four times in as many paragraphs.

And let's not overlook the obvious: Pac-Man wasn't the only productivity-killing distraction the global workforce faced that day. I wonder if RescueTime knows how many man-hours are lost every single day to, say, Solitaire. Or You know, I spent at least 36 seconds of work time reading about BP's latest attempt to plug the oil spill. Shall we add productivity losses to the company's list of wrongdoings?

Obviously Google's an easy target. But this reminds me of the videogame and music industries complaining that piracy costs them billions of dollars every year. Those figures are always based on the assumption that every single pirate would have instead paid to buy that game or song -- something that's impossible to prove and, let's face it, extremely unlikely.

I will say that RescueTime did a stellar job turning Google's supposed lemons into lemonade for itself -- or, in keeping with the Pac-Man theme, turning cherries into points. Guess if you've got some sexy data, you might as well use it to drive traffic.

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.