The Surprising Humanity of Google Trends

Hands typing on laptop computer, high angle view
Hands typing on laptop computer, high angle view

Somebody is reading your Google search history. It's me.

But don't feel the need to jump quickly into justifying why you've spent a good deal of time Googling 'hedgehog bath time" or, you know, other things...because this is public knowledge in the form of Google trends.

Used worldwide by researchers, businesses, and social media marketers like myself, Google Trends is a dive into the population's collective brain; the digital equivalent of hovering over somebody's shoulders as they browse the net. And this is one set of eyes that we can't swat away, Google has been watching patiently as we turn to the search bar for answers. And it turns out we're all asking the same questions, again and again.

The top charts of Google Trends read like the best and the worst of humanity. The worst ranging from deeply painful questions that speak towards immensely complicated and distressing issues to shamefully embarrassing trends like the Kylie Jenner lip challenge.

Weighty questions like "what is ISIS?" or "what is Ebola?" sit at the top of the 2015 stats representing a global desire to make sense of the world, to leave the cushy comfort of ignorance behind. Sandwiched together in the top charts, the superficial and the earth-shattering, I can only imagine that one day these trends will be unearthed like a time capsule containing our darkest secrets and awkward obsessions.

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Where things get weird however, and yes it does get weirder than the Kylie Jenner lip challenge, is that over the years the deepest questions of our existence have snuck into the list too. We might be wondering "how to twerk?", or "who is Gossip Girl?", but we've also been Googling "what is the meaning of life?" and "what is love?"

Every year these questions sneak into the top trending searches worldwide, exposing that at some point in time, a good many of us have turned to Google with our existential questions; questions that we might have once taken to a mentor, a parent, or an elder. What a testament to our dedication towards the internet.

Instead of turning towards elders in the community, people who have actually lived and loved, we've taken to sitting cross-legged at the feet of a search engine as we try and turn web pages and information into something meaningful or life-altering.

In any case, individuals are turning towards the internet to answer life's biggest questions and I'm curious to know why. Is it simply boredom? Or are people trying to shortcut their way through life?

Instead of following the steps most of us take in order to find meaning, such as, travel, exploring spirituality, spending time time with people, the world first turns toward the internet. Are they expecting a Wikipedia page (there is one), or a quick blogpost (we uncover the meaning of life so you don't have to!) or was God going to reach through the screen offering up a stone tablet of answers?

Exactly what is it that we are looking for at the end of a desperation-laden Google search? " We wouldn't survive if people didn't trust us", Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google said about the company. And certainly, it seems like they have that. Not only are we trusting Google with a great pancake mix or a new hairstyle, but our humanity too.

So what exactly comes up when you Google "what is the meaning of life?" A Wikipedia article, a handful of motivational quotes, and a smattering of religious/philosophical websites. Searching for "what is love?" brings up Haddaway's 1992 hit song (You know the one: "what is love, baby don't hurt me"). Besides Haddaway's questionable relationship, there are also a couple of articles trying to capitalize on Google stats and algorithms, not exactly the answer a disheartened Googler is searching for.

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Despite my cynicism, I'm pretty sure that at some point, perhaps after an eight-hour Netflix binge where my brain has turned fleecy and my eyes swollen, that I have typed a similar plea into Google. I asked myself why I would do that, perhaps I was hoping for justification that life is in fact meaningless and that my Netflix binge was A-OK, or that what I was doing was all wrong and that I should be frolicking through SE Asia or spending all my time outdoors.

Regardless, thinking about it now, it was a desperate move. A lonely move. It's sad to think that those same feelings of seeking connection or meaning are behind those questions at the top of Google trends every year. Especially when the answer ironically lies in friendship, family, and human connection -- all of which cannot be found at the end of a 0.61 second search.

So, it turns out we've all been sitting behind the shield of the internet furiously Googling the questions of Plato and Aristotle. It is a search that turns up a truckload of information, a catchy 90's song, and a sprinkling of quotes, but unsurprisingly little in the way of meaning and connection. As to what is fueling this silent search -- I don't know -- but regardless of what the motivation is, I'm fairly confident the meaning of life or love, can't be found by a search engine.