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Surfing the Zeitgeist: Google

If you're looking for an understanding of the year's major events, trends, celebrities and products, look no further than the world's most popular search engine. Google has just come out with its "2004 Year-End Google Zeitgeist: Search patterns, trends, and surprises."

In case you're wondering, the Merriam Webster Online dictionary defines zeitgeist as "the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era" and who better to report those trends than a company that processes billions of searches a year. Although it's not a scientific survey, it is a pretty good view of what Internet users have been curious about during the past 12 months. You'll find it here.

With all due respect for my fellow Web surfers, most don't appear to be all that deep in terms of their interests. The top query for 2004 was Britney Spears, followed by Paris Hilton, Christina Aguilera and, my favorite, Pamela Anderson. The most popular male search terms were Orlando Bloom, Eminem, Usher and Johnny Depp. No literary figures or public servants made the list, though George W. Bush did come out as the most searched after public figure on Google's specialized news search service. His opponent, John Kerry however came out third. The second place honors for "public figure" went to Janet Jackson, which, I guess is appropriate considering how a particular part of her figure was made very public during this year's Super Bowl. As per most-searched TV Shows, forget The West Wing, 60 Minutes, the evening news or anything on PBS. The most popular term was The Simpsons followed by Pokemon and South Park. Spongebob came out No. 5.

And even though Google might be headquartered in California, its audience is clearly international. British soccer star David Beckham came out as the No. 1 sports topic followed by Tour de France, Euro 2004 and, No. 4, NBA. The Boston Red Sox (# 7) beat the New York Yankees (10) online as well as at the ballpark.

Google's image search produced some surprising results. Ferraris, BMWs and Lamborghinis are far too expenses to be among the world's most popular cars, but they are the most searched after automobile images on Google. Perhaps Google users are wishful thinkers or maybe the numbers were influenced by Google employees many of whom actually can afford to buy those cars thanks to the company's wildly successful initial public stock offering.

When it comes to searches on Google's product Web site, the number one consumer electronics product is, no surprise, the Apple iPod. digital cameras come out second and "mp3," which really isn't a product, comes out third. Top clothing search terms were bikini, mini skirt, prom dresses and lingerie. Somehow, I have a feeling most of the searchers were men looking for provocatively dressed women rather than women looking for wardrobe items.

The Internet's geek community must have had something to do with SCO Group, a relatively unknown software company, edging out Johnson and Johnson as the top company search term. The tablet pc, which has not been all that popular in terms of sales, led the computer good search terms followed by computer and laptop.

As for food, it's no surprise that pizza came out number one, though one wonders why sushi came out second? The raw fish delicacy was followed by bakery, Chinese and Italian.

Google also offers an interactive search of major events and most popular queries broken down by month. The Weather Channel got a lot of interest in September, probably because of all the hurricanes. Love Poems were a popular topic during February, home to Valentine's Day and Earth Day got a lot of attention during April. Ronald Reagan, who died that month, was the most sought after term in June but Harry Potter was the most searched after image.

The Google zeitgeist doesn't forget years past. No, it goes ALL the way back to 2001, which in Google years, is quite a while ago. Then as now Britney Spears was the top woman search term, but in 2002, she slipped to number two, beat out by Jennifer Lopez. In 2003 Iraq was the number one news query followed by Laci Peterson. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) was number 5 – that's the group that likes to sue people who share copyrighted music files.

Founded in 1998 by two Stanford students, Google has become an important part of our culture "to google" has become a verb and now, thanks to its ability to keep track of billions of search terms, it's turning out to be an interesting portal into the way the culture is evolving.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

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