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Technology is often blamed for making us lazier (think of vehicles, remote controllers, automatic things, etc.), but does it make us less intelligent? A quick, non-scientific study into Google’s top search terms might lead one to think so. 

A copy of the Excel analysis is at the end of this article.

This evening, I was searching for lists of popular search terms or Tweets about technology so that I might write my next blog post about a hot topic of interest to the masses. Cheating, I know. While searching, I stumbled upon Google Insights, a website that allows one to look up the popularity of search terms in Google. I looked in the “Science” category (“Worldwide,” “Past 30 days”), and I was surprised to find words I would expect to come from an child in elementary school, such as "cool math" and "moon." Even considering that people may shorten and perhaps dumb-down the words they enter into the search box in order to keep things quick and simple, the words were still far more basic than what I would expect.

Is the average Google user eight years old? Or does he/she search at an elementary school reading level, for some reason?

Thus, I was moved to conduct a very quick, non-scientific study to determine the “reading level” of common Google searches.

I used two methods and compared their results: 
1. Google “Reading Level” (a new tool launched earlier in 2011), and 
2. the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level (calculated according to the formula at: http://homeworktips.about.com/od/homeworkhelp/a/readinglevel.htm).

First, I chose a sample of Google search terms to study. In a pseudo-random fashion, I chose the top ten most popular search terms worldwide, in the past 30 days, provided by Google Insights for the every 7th category listed (there were 27 categories in total, and I didn’t want to study them all). The categories were: Finance & Insurance, Lifestyles, and Science. Below is a screenshot of the top ten Science search terms as of June 20, 2011.


Next, I looked up each search term on the respective top ten lists and used the “Reading Level” feature in Google Advance Search (http://www.google.com.au/advanced_search). Here is an example of the reading level results for the term “juegos,” which was the 10th most popular search term in the Lifestyles category.

I also used a formula (referenced above) to calculate the Reading Grade Level of the search terms. The formula looks at both the total number of words in a sample of text (in this case, just one or two words in the search term) as well as the number of syllables in each word. Considering that the formula is designed for full pieces of text—paragraphs and sentences—its informative-ness may be limited when applied to brief, one- or two- word search terms. 

I found that the average Google Reading Level was Basic-Intermediate, with a slight lean toward Intermediate, according to Google's own Basic-Intermediate-Advanced ranking system. The average Reading Grade Level was fourth grade! 

These findings can be interpreted in many ways.

Perhaps Google indeed "makes" us dumb. Perhaps Google has low standards for what it calls “Intermediate” (it appears to be around the 4th grade level). Maybe the average Google user is in fact a fourth-grader (unlikely), or middle-aged men pretending to be fourth-graders (let's hope not). Or the results may reflect a tendency for all online content, no matter how intelligent the target audience, to be simplified due to the impatience with reading on an LCD screen.

More likely, we may be witnessing a phenomenon wherein shorter, simpler phrases are more likely to appear in greater number. Even though most people may enter much longer, more advanced phrases in the search box, the longer the phrase, the less likely it is that all words in that phrase exactly match those in another phrase. So if only perfectly matching phrases are counted as a single search term, fewer-word search terms, that are shorter and easier to spell, are more likely to be found in greater number. For example, considering a one-word search term, on a given day, there might be 100 alternate spellings of "rhinoceros" and 10 correct spellings of "dino." Even though there are a lot of smart adults out there misspelling rhinoceros, "dino" will come up as the top search term, making it look like we're all in kindergarten. Also, it is possible that Google only shows "key words" that originally appear in longer phrases.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting study of a rather simple observation: that the top search terms in Google seem to be very, very simple. Many, in fact, are one word and one syllable. 

While the tone of this paper is light-heartedly mocking Google’s intelligence level, or perhaps its affect on our intelligence levels, I actually think Google is a blessing. If it weren’t for their incredible wealth of data, and cool tools including Insights and the new Reading Level search function, this little study wouldn’t have been possible. If anything, technology such as Google allows us to spend our mental and physical energy on other things.

Happy searching!

PS, For curiosity, I looked up the Reading Grade Level of this very article on the website: http://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp. It came out as just under 10th grade level. Give it a try!

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8/30/2012 01:12:28 pm

The matter written on your blog really keeps tying the reader till the end. Very interesting use of phrases and idioms.


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    Aaron Keefe likes to Pondr (pronounced "ponder") about science, business, and art.

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