Talk to Marissa Mayer, Google's 20th employee and the company's first female engineer and she'll tell you "Zeitgeist," by definition, is "the spirit of the times. And it really tries to capture the moral, ethical and the popular cultures of the day."
As Google's vice president of search and user experience, she ought to know. She presides over what might be described as the ultimate popularity contest, the Google Zeitgeist, a comprehensive, cultural cross-section of what's hot, and what's not, based on what people search for through the course of 2007.
This year's list, released today, details some surprising results. Quick, name the most popular presidential candidate based on who users were searching for: Hillary Clinton? Rudy Guiliani? Nope. The outspoken, quirky Ron Paul beat out all other candidates.
Mayer tells me, in our exclusive interview, that, "Ron Paul had a huge up-swell in terms of online interest. He had the largest fundraising day online ever. I think people are wondering who he is and what he stands for and it gives them interest in searching for him." Of course, his results are probably helped by the fact that conventional media tends to dwell only on the front-runners, spurring voters to search for information on their own. And that's where Google comes in.
Some results make sense: Apple's iPhone was the fastest-rising search term, beating out Webkinz, TMZ, Transformers, and YouTube in the top 5. But consider that iPhone didn't exist the year prior and now it does.
The biggest surprise might be found in the macabre "most searched deaths" category. Sure, Anna Nicole Smith topped that category, followed by Travis Barker, Vince McMahon, Chris Benoit, Fidel Castro, Michael Jackson, Ryan Sheckler, Bob Barker, Criss Angel and Bob Marley. But here's the thing: Only Anna Nicole, Chris Benoit and Bob Marley are actually dead!
There's also a bit of a surprise in the entertainment category. We all know Disney's Hannah Montana is popular, but more popular than the Rolling Stones? "Hannah Montana is actually more popular than Bruce Springsteen and other major rock stars, so that's interesting to see," says Mayer.
She walked me through some graphs and charts and showed me why the Zeitgeist is more than merely interesting. It can be a key tool for businesses, tracking trends in the marketplace: " Xbox has led the way most of the year, but the Wii is really taking off as we come into this holiday season. As we look out to the video console sales, we will ultimately see the Wii will win this holiday season," says Mayer.
Same goes with the big, bruising battle between next-generation DVD formats: "Blu-ray is popular. We had some peaks where they move together, but ultimately, HD DVD is really where there is a lot more interest," she says.
Some of the search items show just how much users rely on Google for so many different parts of their lives. In the "top of mind" category, the most popular question was, "What is love?"
"It is amazing what some people typed in the search box," says Mayer. "Our search quality team always talked about the fact that the one thing 'search' can't tell you is, 'What is love?' That is one of our big search challenges. To produce a search result page that really tells you what love is."
In the "how to" category, "how to kiss" was number 1. And in the "who is" category? "Who is God?" Deep questions and lots of pressure on Mayer and her team not just to supply results, but to, in some way, make them relevant.
The Zeitgeist, of course, focuses on what has already happened, looking back on 2007. But if past can be prologue, some of these trends can portend what will be important in 2008. Mayer won't offer predictions, but "I'm hoping for iPhone 3G," she laughs. That, and "I really hope we will have as much innovation in the 2008 if not more."
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