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Lies, Damned Lies, and Google

It's all the rage for writers to prove their points by citing Google. One problem: The stats are meaningless.

- February 18, 2004

Writers crafting trend stories—or, for that matter, profiles, or lifestyle pieces, or reviews, or even news items—are always desperate to prove the popularity of whatever hot new thing they're identifying. They could do some reporting, of course, or find some statistical research, but instead they're technologically smitten, like everyone else. What's a simpler, or faster, way of quantifying a trend than typing a key word or phrase into Google? Type in almost any person, place, or thing, and Google will bounce back to you a neat numerical value that calculates that person, place, or thing's importance to this world. The writer can sit back and let the search engine's brainy algorithms do all the work—and then even pick up some tech-savvy bonus points, too. Google, and not polls or pie charts, has emerged as a journalist's best friend—and best source.

Take the February 2 issue of The New Yorker, for example, which features not just one but two examples of reportorial Googling to gauge a story subject's popularity. First, TV critic Nancy Franklin cites Google in her article "L.A. Love" for, of all things, comparing the relative popularity of naked men and women. "A Google search for 'naked men'," she writes, "yields about six hundred thousand results; 'naked women' yields more than a million." Ergo, the female body must be more desirous than the male's. Case closed. Why? Well, because Google said so.

Franklin's colleague Michael Specter couldn't disagree. After all, he relies on a similar gambit in his story "Miracle in a Bottle" to gauge the popularity of the diet drug Zantrex. "If you type 'Zantrex' into Google," he writes, "more than a hundred thousand citations will appear." Though he preceded the sentence with evidence and statistics of the drug's increased use, Specter seemed worried that in this dot-com age, Internet-savvy readers would be left unconvinced without hard search-engine evidence. Scientific studies as proof? Eh. Web searches? Now you've convinced me.

But it turns out Google's biggest journalist fans are not at 4 Times Square. No, that honor goes to the hardworking scribes at the Los Angeles Times. In a January 18 article, Times staff writer Steve Lopez writes, "I went to Google on the Internet, typed in the words 'Buddhist', 'bait', and 'Marina del Rey', and got a hit." (Remarkable work, Steve!, I can imagine his editors marveling.) In another January story, the newspaper's magazine ran a feature on sports scribe Frank Deford. He's a "distinguished writer," claims staff writer Glenn Bunting. The evidence? "A Google search of his name produces more than 21,000 hits." And to prove Audrey Hepburn's continuing popularity last year, a decade after her death, at least one member of the paper's staff got busy and did what any brave, pull-no-punches journo would do: She Googled "Audrey Hepburn" and found 793 websites devoted to the movie star.

Of course, it's not just The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times that employ journalists dogged enough to use this aggressive investigative technique. Mary Carole McCauley of the Baltimore Sun recently wrote that "no other instrument is targeted more frequently than the viola." The reason? "Type in the term 'viola jokes' on the Google search engine and you will get 19,700 hits." (Who hasn't heard a good viola joke lately?) Laura Sessions Stepp of The Washington Post has observed a new "rage" sweeping the nation: hating Britney Spears. And how does Stepp document this anti-Britney hysteria? She reveals her methodology proudly, in her lede: A Google search of "Britney hater" that brought 9,000 hits.

The major papers might regularly bigfoot their regional competition, but with this powerful new reporting tool, the little guys can put up their own fight. For those curious about the new craze for building backyard ice rinks, The Spokesman Review, in Spokane, Washington, confirms that the phrase "build backyard ice rink" yields 5,400 Google hits. Looking to try cow tipping? Florida's Tallahassee Democrat suggests typing the sport into Google for tips on tipping. If you're Canadian and stuck on the wrong side of the border without proper ID, don't worry, Google will save you, reports the Canada's Times Colonist; the phrase "permanent resident cards CA" will bring you to a "staggering" 92,200 sites on the subject. And remember Wheel of Fortune, everyone's favorite game show for brainless wordsmiths? Well, it's still kicking. In fact, The Arizona Republic says the game show is doing so well its name continues to yield 335,000 Google hits.

"If information is power, then Google has helped change the world," wrote Joel Achenbach in last Sunday's Washington Post. "Google works. Google knows." True, Google is a handy and smart website, in addition to an excellent starting place to gather background info or to brainstorm for story ideas (or, for that matter, a fun way to spy on friends, exes, et al.). But it's neither a scientific nor accurate tool to gauge a subject's popularity. Its data can be faulty, fleeting, and, as any doctoral student or fact checker knows, terribly inaccurate. Not only because the search engine brings up blogs and message boards and Bob Andrews' freshman term paper on Western Civilization—none of which was probably fact- or spell-checked—but because its hit counts fluctuate faster than poll numbers in Iowa.

For example, a Google search for Vermont governor Howard Dean in mid-January netted 1,460,000 hits. (This was reported by—you guessed it—the Los Angeles Times.) Dean's popularity has since tanked, yet a February 10 search of his name yielded more than 2 million results (that's also more than John Kerry netted, proving Google's limitations at predicting primary results). Google also has its share of quirks. For one, it's self-referential; Google the word "Google" and you get a whopping 43 million hits. What's more, as you might remember from December news reports, the phrase "miserable failure" for a while directed searchers to the White House home page, and "French military victories" brought up zero pages.

Sad to say, plugging Google in a story has become almost a telltale sign of sloppy reporting, a hack's version of a Rolodex. Journalists, especially ones from highbrow publications like The New Yorker, should be sourcing hard stats, not search-engine evidence, to bolster their stories. Case in point: Google the two aforementioned New Yorker writers, and you'll find that Nancy Franklin is more than twice as popular as Michael Specter, with only 1670 hits versus her 3410. Of course the data is far from accurate: Franklin shares her name with a prolific porn star.

Lionel Beehner is research editor of the New York Press. He writes about media, comedy, and cultural affairs in New York City.

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