Monday, April 21, 2008

Searchsleuthing: My new distraction

For many years internet users were unable to use common words, like and, it, or the, in their search queries. Search engines, like Google, automatically ignored these terms, known as stop words, because they tend to slow a search down. It was, however, possible to get around this possibly unwelcome elision by putting brackets or quotation marks around one’s search term. This would allow one to search for bands like “The Who” or “The The,” the latter of which must have named itself with the intention of frustrating future fans (The The was formed in 1978).

Recently, however, Google eliminated its use of pesky stop words. One might think this would have opened Pandora’s box for clever marketers, giving them the opportunity to “own” common words, by ensuring their placement at the top of search results. For some words, this hypothesis holds true. Barnes and Noble is result number one when one googles and. Other companies with claims to certain words include NBC (its show Life is first in line for this SETIesque query), CNN/Forbes is the answer to money, and good old Microsoft dominates word, the most frequently used noun in English.

Other common words turn up surprisingly modest sites. Funbrain is where one can find—it hardly needs to be said—fun. A search for the most-used action verb in English, see, brings up the home page for See’s Candies. is puzzlingly the first result for of. And the state of Indiana has some issues with its search engine optimization. It comes up tops for in (the most common English word) but behind Indiana University with a direct search for the state’s full name.

Several non-profits manage to score first place as well. Teach For America is the lead result for for, but slips three spots when one searches for teach., a non-profit dedicated to fighting poverty and AIDS, lays claim to the loneliest number. A handful of media companies hold sway over some very powerful words. Home is The New York Times and it can be found at Slashdot. But it’s satirical newspaper The Onion that wins the biggest prize of all, the most common word in the English language (the)—already used 23 times in this post. Something called The White House is runner-up. A search for love turns up a humble Wikipedia entry (a site that dominates search results for the vast majority of nouns), while searching for sex leads one, not surprisingly, to a porn site. Surprisingly, a search for love results in nearly three times as many links as a search for sex (1.9 billion compared to 700 million).

See what your own searchsleuthing reveals—amusing surprises abound!

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