A Google Search For Meaning

(Originally published February 9, 2010 at playgroupwithsylviaplath.com)

Thing One returned from a squash match yesterday to tell me that he didn’t finish all of his homework in study hall because they were busy watching commercials from Sunday night’s Super Bowl. Ah, now there’s my education dollars at work.

imgres.jpgBut really, at $3 million for a 30-second spot, and all the water cooler and gym locker buzz they generate the next day, the commercials really are the highlight of the Super Bowl. In our house, Doritos was the clear winner with the younger set, but Slim and I agreed that Google’s spot stole the show. In case you missed it, take a look:

Google Superbowl Ad

We thought the one-minute micro-fiction was clean, clever and charming. Google’s “Parisian Love” was a 1-minute search engine fantasy, and viewers loved it. But let’s take a look at Google searches in reality.

Recently, I’d heard a lot about a book where a man places a classified ad in the newspaper looking for a wife. I’m sure I had picked the book up a few times in the store, maybe read a random review and I decided I’d like to give it further consideration as a potential read. – Maybe some strange curiosity about any woman who would reply to an ad looking for “a wife” and think that she was getting a real bargain.

I racked my Rolodex of a brain overloaded with useless information (does anyone still need to know my P.O. Box number – from college?) and all I came up with was “something wife.” Was it good wife? Pretend wife? Simple wife? Average wife? – Eureka! I was sure it was Average Wife (and thought, what an awful title). So like any modern info junky, I entered it right into the Google search window. As I typed, my good friend Google was there by my side, happily suggesting things along the way to speed my search. With “A” I got Amazon, “A-V” gave me Avatar, “A-V-E” brought up Avery, and then there it was, the most recommended search with the letters “A-V-E-R?” Average penile length.

My immediate reaction was that there was something wrong, I must have mistyped the letters or something so I tried it again. Sure enough there were the words staring at me (and I mean staring) as the cursor blinked patiently. Then it occurred to me, this could be unique to my personal computer because of my Google history (see Whither GoMommy.com.) I asked around, but the search suggestions held true in California, New York and Pennsylvania. Inquiring minds across America want to know average penile length.

Really? Is this something a lot of today’s consumers of news and information are concerned with? This is the top “item” people would like to know the average of? As a professional reporter who knows a thing or two about tracking down an answer, I got to employ one of my favorite Bill Murray lines, “Back off man, I’m a journalist.” (Even with just “back off” typed in, Google nails Ghostbusters’ “Back off man, I’m a scientist.”)

Just an email and a quick phone call to the Google press room, and I had an official expert on the line. “The feature you’re asking about is called Google Suggest,” said Jake. (Of course his name is Jake. How many people do you know over the age of 25 named Jake? In fact, according to Social Security records, the name was hovering around “Dustin” and “José” in popularity in the early 1980s. Jacob and Jake broke through the top 20 in 1990 and continued to climb the charts to become the number one boys name in 2000 – a spot it has held every year since.) So, back to my waiting-to-become-legal Google friend Jake.

He explained that Google Suggest uses a number of different variables and signals to refine its suggested offerings, chief among them the overall popularity of similar searches. He apologized for not going further, “We don’t get into the nitty-gritty of how the algorithm works because we don’t want people to try and game the system.” Yes, that’s me. Just ask Social Security: most popular activity for 40-year-old housewives in 2010? Gaming Google’s system.

So, by this logic, it would appear that “average penile length” is a far more popular search than average IQ, average temperature, average salary, average height, or any other average, for that matter. This just further supports my pet theory that Google is actually run by a room of 15-year-old boys subsisting on Cool Ranch Doritos and blue Gatorade.

My brief foray into the world of Google algorithms and search engines also taught me that, if you are looking to attract readers interested in thoughtful writing on modern parenting, then combining the words “playgroup” and “Sylvia Plath” is not exactly the go-to move. Indeed, aligning yourself with a woman who committed suicide by putting her head in her own oven while her children napped in the next room, puts you in the “difficult to label” category. This explains why my blog is clustered with others writing about families that have had either a variety of hospital stays or other “issues.” Perhaps I really am right at home in the blogosphere.

So, when I finally made my way back to my book search, I discovered what I was looking for: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. It is billed as a mysterious, gothic tale about a 58-year-old man, claiming he wants “a simple honest woman. A quiet life.” Well, the personal-ad protagonist and his betrothed seem to have differing definitions of “reliable.” His bride-to-be arrives with some real baggage. Alongside her comfortable shoes and wool dresses, she’s packed a bottle of arsenic with which to poison her new husband.

And now I know why A Reliable Wife was not among the dozen books Slim gave me for Christmas. I also know a little more about how the Google Suggest feature works. And because all of America seems to want to know, it’s 5.1 to 5.9 inches.

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