Google’s Suicide Watch

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I don’t really know what to make of this, but I occasionally trawl Google Search Trends/Insights to see what people are looking for, and whether they’re changing much over the past few years.

This seems to me to be as good an indicator of things as anything else.

I did it back in 2005 with Web 2.0, the tsunami,the economic crisis and seinfeld and tina fey.

But how about this one: the rise and fall of the search for “commit suicide painlessly”: things had been pretty flat since 2004 and then suddenly, over a period of three or four months from October 2008 to March 2009, the index goes from about 18 to 100:

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It’s not good to read too much into Google Insights for Search, but I reckon there’s some interesting stuff in here. For one thing, the spike is a real one. That’s no blip.

(I should point out that these figures are relative. What Google does is to take the highest point—the largest volume of searches for that term since they started saving data in 2004, and then work out the volume in relation to that.)

Secondly, by mid April things on a global scale return, more or less, to where they had been in August 2008, before the crisis hit:

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But if you look at individual countries, the picture is more complex:

In the U.S., where the search term rose from a relatively low base (actually it shows up as zero, meaning not enough data) it rises to 100, and then falls back by April to around 20. Only in the past few weeks does it seem to have returned to where it was to start with:

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Look at the UK, by comparison, and we’re not there yet: From zero it rose—a week or so earlier, apparently to 100 by January, and then dropped, but only to around 40. It’s now around 35:

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In other words, if one could take this data literally, the British are still very depressed and are still likely to be exploring ways of committing suicide. That’s pretty scary.

By the way, if you take these figures and compare them with the official UK statistics [PDF], they don’t tell you a lot. Brits have been killing themselves less since the late 1990s (though without figures from 2008 until now):

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This pretty much dovetails with the Google results, 2004-9

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PS I should point out that I used the term above because, having searched for “how to commit suicide” on the Google Trends page, I noticed that “commit suicide painlessly” was a popular search, rising 190%. Confusingly, “how to commit suicide” has, as a search been trending downward since 2004:

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PPS Google’s nonprofit arm does use its data for this kind of thing, at least in the area of flu. It now carries data on Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S.:

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The Financial Crisis in Charts

Thought I’d offer a brief history of the financial crisis as seen through Google Insights, which measures the popularity of a search term over time.

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Interest in the word subprime spiked a couple of times in 2007 (above) before we figured out it was all about toxic debts (below):

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and credit crunches:

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Then we realised suddenly we had to learn a bit more about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae:

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and even basic terms like liquidity:

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Useful information. And it wasn’t just an economics lesson. We had to gen up on countries that we had recently given little attention to, like Iceland:

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Although it’s worth keeping it all in perspective. Search for the word meltdown, a commonly used term to capture the excitement of the past few weeks, and you get this. Clearly rising interest, but that spoke in 2005? It’s linked to Ice Age: The Meltdown, which grossed $70 million at the box office in its debut week:

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The Financial Crisis in Charts

Thought I’d offer a brief history of the financial crisis as seen through Google Insights, which measures the popularity of a search term over time.

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Interest in the word subprime spiked a couple of times in 2007 (above) before we figured out it was all about toxic debts (below):

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and credit crunches:

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Then we realised suddenly we had to learn a bit more about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae:

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and even basic terms like liquidity:

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Useful information. And it wasn’t just an economics lesson. We had to gen up on countries that we had recently given little attention to, like Iceland:

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Although it’s worth keeping it all in perspective. Search for the word meltdown, a commonly used term to capture the excitement of the past few weeks, and you get this. Clearly rising interest, but that spike in 2005? It’s linked to Ice Age: The Meltdown, which grossed $70 million at the box office in its debut week:

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Hollywood still trumps global financial disaster, I guess.

The Thin Yellow Lines of Innovation

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Maybe you’ve already noticed this, but I very much like this feature in Google Chrome that lets you see at a glance matches for a search term within a page. The matches appear as yellow lines within the scroll bar (see above) so you can easily access them by dragging the scroll bar itself.b

Another nice twist with Chrome is that it will tell you how many matches there are on a page, and tell you which one you’re currently viewing:

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Nice touch. I still think the Firefox search trick of being able to highlight all instances of a search term within the page is very helpful:

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Which helps to make the matching words stand out on the page (along with the extra option of matching case:

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What’s interesting here is the innovation in a feature that has, elsewhere, become largely moribund. Check out the search box in Microsoft Word 2007:

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You can choose the Reading Highlight button to, well, highlight those terms you’re looking for, but frankly, I only just found that feature and I’ve been using Word for years. The features in Chrome and Firefox I found pretty much straightaway.

And the feature doesn’t really detract from the fact that the Find box itself is pretty poorly designed, and short of features. Surely in a program that is about processing words, this would be a feature you’d have a whole team working on to improve?

Bottom line: While old software stands still, we’re seeing a lot of incremental but valuable improvements in the new software—browsers, basically—and I think therein lies a lesson. Microsoft et al, you need to turn your attention to these small things, that may not be very belly or whistly (sorry, just wanted to use the word ‘belly’) but which we all use. A lot.

Loyalty to a program, whether it’s a browser or a word processor, may often come down to these small things.