Tumbling in the search for search semantics

January 3, 2013

Thanks to Google Trends, anyone can know what everyone’s searching for. Or even what health news Marylanders were searching for last month. But no one can know why they are searching.

Without knowing users’ intent, observers shouldn’t assume that search trends mean something is or isn’t trendy.

The Atlantic Wire and others surmised that the term “blog” might be outdated, and that “Tumblr” may be becoming the Kleenex to its tissue, now that the latter has passed the former in search term popularity. Especially since a search for “Tumblr” gets processed so fast Google doesn’t even display the time, not so fast my friend.

Since search is one of the most common ways Web users learn about unfamiliar things, one could just as easily spin the data the other way to say it reflects the generic blog’s increased popularity — or at least familiarity.

The average Web user today, I’ll hypothesize, is more likely to know what a blog is than the average Web user in Spring 2009, when “blog” peaked in the Google Trends chart that inspired the Wire’s post. While it’s long been a household term in techie spaces, “Tumblr” is still a new name for many a Internet user. Or, perhaps someone’s heard it a lot, but isn’t exactly sure what it is.

Another factor likely at play is users’ using search as a navigational tool, a habit ReadWriteWeb learned about the hard way in early 2010. Since it was the top news result, and hence atop all search results, users mistook its article that talked about logging into Facebook for the actual Facebook login page!

Mobile, with its cumbersome typing interfaces and narrow address bars, and search being baked into most address bars, further encourage users to use search as a shortcut for typing out the full URL. “Tumblr” surely benefits from these navigational applications, but “blog” — other than a caveman, maybe, who’s trying to go to just “blog”? — not so much.

Bottom line, it’s difficult to compare generic and specific search terms. The Google Trends data certainly document the rise of Tumblr, but not necessarily the fall of “blog.”

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