I think readers know that on balance, I’m a fan of Google. I recently switched to the Nexus 4 (more coming on that front as I settle into really using it). I believe the company has a stronger core philosophy than many of its rivals. Overall, given that it’s nearly impossible to avoid putting your data into someone’s cloud, I believe that Google is probably the best choice for any number of reasons.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t criticize the company. And every year about this time, I end up doing just that.
Because the annual Google Zeitgeist came out this week, and I’ve spent a bit of time digging into it. And once again, I’m pretty disappointed.
In the past I’ve criticized Google for failing to ask interesting questions of the massive amount of data it collects on search patterns each year. Once again, this lament applies. I honestly do not care what top ten TV Shows, Sports Stars, Songs, or even People we collectively care about, because there is *never* a surprise in those results.
But Google knows so much more….and could really tease out some insights if it cared to. Imagine if Google took its massive search query database and worked with some of the leaders in the open data movement to mine true insights? Sure, Google would have to be careful about how it released the data, but the output would be extraordinary, I’d warrant.
Instead, we find out that Gangnam Style was a big deal this year. No shit!?
But it gets worse. Not only is Zeitgeist rife with pop culture fluff, as you drill down into it by country, eager perhaps to find something interesting, it turns out Google has chosen to eliminate certain potentially sensitive categories altogether.
For the US and most other countries, for example, there is a “What is….” category, which shows the top search queries that start with “What is…” For the US, the answers are
- What is SOPA
- What is Scientology
- What is KONY
- What is Yolo
- What is Instagram
- What is Pinterest
- What is Lent
- What is Obamacare
- What is iCloud
- What is Planking
But is there a “What Is…” for Saudi Arabia? Nope. China? Uh-uh. The United Arab Emirates? No sir. Egypt? Move along.
Oddly, Google did provide “What is…” was for Singapore, where people living under that “benign dictatorship” were interested in the same things as the US – “What is SOPA”, “What is Scientology” and, for politicians, who is “Mitt Romney.”
For the US only, you can drill down into all manners of other categories past the main page, including News, Science, Tech, Humanities, and Cities. Those are pretty interesting categories, but Google only provides them for the US, which is a shame.
Furthermore, I find it interesting that Google, with all of its translation technology, does not have a translation button on the results pages for countries where the majority of the searches are in languages other than English. This is most likely due to political sensitivities, because if you run some of the results through Google Translate (do you believe I had to do that?!), you get some stuff that I am sure does not please the regimes of countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
For example, here are some of the top searches for Saudi Arabia, translated (roughly I am sure) by the Google Translate service:
Student outcomes Arab Idol insurance Ramadan Series 2012 Mohamed Morsi explosion Riyadh Burma Free Syrian Army Shura Council tornado Sandy
But again, you aren’t going to get much more insight into what Saudi folks are *really* thinking about, because Google failed to ask the interesting questions, like those it has in the “News” section of the US Zeitgeist. I’d sure be interested in “Political Gaffes,” “Election Issues,” and “News Sources,” in Saudi Arabia, China, or the UAE.
In fact, for Saudi Arabia, Google has ommitted the “Top News Searches” box that is on several of the other country pages (even Egypt). Instead, the topics for Saudi Arabia (besides trending searches and people) focus on sports and entertainment stars, fashion designers, TV shows, and the like. Deep, Google. Thanks.
Now, the datasets are different for each country, and it may be that Google simply didn’t have enough trending data to surface interesting political insights for these controversial countries.
Somehow, though, I don’t buy that. This set of lists feels extremely human vetted – I’m guessing an awful lot of hand wringing went into chosing what to show and what might prove problematic to Google’s best interests were it to see the light of day.
If that is the case, I urge the company to have more courage. I bet if Google open sourced its query data sets (eliminating any chance of PII getting out, of course), I bet academics, data scientists, and just plain interested folks would let loose an explosion of insight. Pop up the rainbird of data, Google, and let the ecosystem flourish. We’d all be the richer for it.