The other day, I idly wondered about the band-aids or surgical tape visible on Michael Jackson’s fingertips. I took out my smartphone, and started typing in the query “why did michael jackson wear bandages on his fingers“. As I typed the first few words, the search box filled with a slew of Google search suggestions:
Why did michael jackson die?
Why did michael jackson turn white?
Why did michael jackson change his nose?
Why did michael jackson bleach his skin?
It occurred to me that the number of questions like these would be higher for some celebrities, like Michael Jackson, than for others. I decided to try to measure this, so I wrote a little script that measures the “Wonderment Rank” of various people and things.
You give the script a word or phrase, such as “michael jackson” or “kittens”, and it constructs a series of partial search queries:
why did ____
why does ____
why do ____
how come ___
why didn’t ___
why doesn’t ___
why don’t ___
It then counts the total amount of Google search traffic for all these partial phrases, using this undocumented API and reports the results. Wonderment Rank is reported as a single number, which represents millions of searches.
For the record, here is the Wonderment Rank of Michael Jackson, along with a few other celebrities.
|sacha baron cohen||0|
As you can see, the recently deceased tend to score highly (except for Davy Jones). Some celebrities, such as Sacha Baron Cohen, score nary a blip, which leads me to believe that Google has some kind of arbitrary cutoff in reporting results.
The results (and my methodology) suggest that Wonderment Rank is strongly correlated to overall search popularity. It’s not the same thing, however. Consider kittens. Google Trends reveals that “kittens” have roughly twice the search traffic of “jack black”, but kittens merit a relatively low wonderment rank of 21. Yes they are cute and playful, but not exactly mysterious.
Celebrities and kittens aren’t the only things people wonder about. They also wonder about politics.
And we all wonder about existential questions. We wonder about the motivations of God, and about Jesus. We wonder about life, death, taxes, and why do birds suddenly appear?
Men wonder about women. Women wonder about men, but not to the same degree. As a man, I expected women to score more highly, but apparently, I was wrong:
Parents wonder about their kids:
And people wonder about anybody, anyone, someone, and nobody:
For the nerds in the audience, here is the perl script I wrote to measure wonderment rank, and here is a version I made in ruby.
Over the next few days, I’ll post a few more results.
UPDATE: A few days after I wrote this, Google stopped providing search-query counts in their suggest API. This change makes this metric much less precise, although the API can still be used to detect some level of interest.
EDIT: I corrected the spelling of Sacha Baron Cohen – thanks Clive!