Searching for stuff on the Web is typically a one-man job. Punch in your query, hit enter, and your computer hands over a list of the most relevant results. But searching doesn’t have to be solitary. As we’re typing away in our little vacuums, Google is collecting and storing what we write. Want to see what other people are curious about? Download the Google Toolbar, start typing, and you’ll see a list of suggested queries: similar terms that other users often search for. For tech researchers, this is an incomparable tool for figuring out how and why we use search engines. For me, it’s the makings of an endlessly fun parlor game that offers answers to mankind’s enduring mysteries. What do we think about when we think about Tom Cruise? What are the most frequently mispronounced words in the English language? And when people write “my balls,” what word usually comes next?
The idea of search suggestions has been around since at least 2004, when a software engineer named Kevin Gibbs built a simple application called Google Suggest as a personal project. Two years ago, the company integrated Suggest into the Google Toolbar. This year, the idea has gone mainstream: Search for something at Ask.com or Yahoo.com and you’ll be greeted by a dropdown suggestion window.
How does Suggest work? Type the letter “p” into the Google Toolbar (or the Google Suggest homepage) and a small box billows down. In the top half is your search history—up to 10 recent search terms that start with “p.” Below that is a list of 10 “p” phrases that Google thinks you might want to search for. The toolbar’s 10 proposed searches: paris hilton, photobucket, paypal, pc world, pokemon, pizza hut, people search, post office, passport, people. Add an “i” and the list instantly changes: pizza hut, piczo, pirate bay, picasa, pictures, pink, pirates, pimp my profile, pirates of the caribbean.
On the most basic level, search suggestions are a boon for lazy typists. Punching in a long phrase is for suckers: If you want to Google “washington post,” type “was,” tap the down arrow a few times, and hit Enter. The dropdown box is also a subtle reminder that the more specific the query, the better the results. Search for “dog” and odds are you won’t find what you’re looking for. Type “dog” into Google Toolbar, and the options in the dropdown window—dog breeds, dog names, dog the bounty hunter, dogpile.com—will help you find your way.
Google doesn’t reveal its search algorithms, but the company’s engineers confirm that what we’re looking at in the toolbar is, essentially, a list of the 10 most popular queries that start with a given prefix. (It’s unclear what time period the suggestions are culled during, but a spokesman says they’re generated from “recent [search] activity.”) A suggestion-enabled search is like an instant popularity contest. Just type in a couple of letters, and you’ve got access to oodles of data on what your fellow Web surfers are hunting for.
The obvious first question: How popular am I? We’ve all self-Googled to see where we fall on the results page. Suggestions offer a whole new playing field for Web-based vanity. Type in “josh lev” and Google’s ninth suggestion is “josh levin slate.” The people have spoken! Alas, the people are slightly more interested in “josh levine tmz.” Still, I’m one up on my Slate colleague Jack Shafer, whose name doesn’t appear when you type “jack sh.” Yes, he ranks below “jack shit.”
There’s also plenty of fodder for non-narcissists. The most-searched-for Paul? Some guy named Paul Sculfor, followed by Paul McCartney. Mary Kay edges out Maryland and Mary Poppins; Jane Norman is more popular than Jane Austen, Jane Fonda, or Jane Goodall. What do people want to know about Tom Cruise? The top two suggestions are “tom cruise movies” and “tom cruise height.” Katie Holmes doesn’t show up until the third entry, Oprah the sixth. Scientology doesn’t appear at all.
Without Google, there would be no singalongs. No matter what you search for—”big” or “smile” or “kiss“—Suggest will think that you’re in the market for song lyrics. Type in the name of any band, and requests for lyrics come up before anything else. (The links here and in the paragraphs below go to Google Suggest Explorer, a site that generates a list of Google’s suggestions for any combination of search terms.)
Once you start looking for them, unexpected suggestions start popping up everywhere. Like most nerds, I spend a fair bit of time looking up the players on my fantasy baseball team. My searches are typically focused on things like statistics and injuries. Google, however, won’t stop suggesting that I want to look up the player’s “wife” or “girlfriend.” Sure, you’d expect that for pin-ups like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. But Ryan Klesko, Ryan Theriot, and Mark Derosa? Really? Another strange baseball-related trend: There seem to be a bunch of searchers who wishfully append the word “Jewish” onto the names of vaguely Jewish-sounding athletes. Sorry, fellow Semites—Lance Berkman and Josh Phelps are not members of the tribe.
Google Toolbar also led me to the unsurprising discovery that people cheat on the New York Times crossword puzzle. I learned this fact while cheating on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Bedeviled by 48-Down, I began to type in the clue. I only got as far as “godfrey’s w” before Google filled in the rest: “Godfrey’s Woman in My Man Godfrey.” When I punched in “canada’s bat” the same thing happened—the scofflaws before me had already inquired about “Canada’s Battle of Fort _____, 1866.”
After a couple of months of serendipitous delights, I decided to use Suggest to conduct a serious study of human behavior. Google Toolbar makes it easy to practice armchair sociology—just conjure the first half of any question or statement, and Google fills in the back end. Want to know what questions are flummoxing mankind? Type in “is it true that.” The fourth suggestion: “is it true that if you don’t use it you lose it.” The fifth: “is it true that ciara is a man.” Enter “how bad is” to figure out everything the English-speaking world thinks might not be OK: smoking, followed by global warming, soda, marijuana, and McDonald’s.
The Google Toolbar can also be a handy tool for teasing out sexual politics. Strip out the movie and song titles, and these are the top searches that begin with “my girlfriend is“: a bitch, pregnant, crazy, hot, fat, depressed, getting fat. Compare with the top results for “my boyfriend is“: an asshole, an alcoholic, depressed, mean, married, hot. For what it’s worth, “my mom is” combines the worst of both: hot, a bitch, crazy, amazing, mean, my hero, depressed, pregnant, an alcoholic. Human relations look blissful, though, compared with the piteous list of searches that start with “my dog is“: sick, limping, throwing up, constipated, not eating, shaking, coughing, vomiting, and eating grass. At least the last one is “my dog is cuter than your dog.”
Sometimes we turn to search engines when we have nowhere else to go for counsel. To wit, Google Suggest overflows with pregnancy anxiety. The top two results for “how do you know“: how do you know if your pregnant, how do you know if you are pregnant. (In sixth place is “how do you know if you are in love.”) A search for “can I eat” reveals the items that pregnant women fear the most: feta cheese, sushi, honey, mayonnaise, prawns, lobster, peanut butter, shrimp, and tuna.
Google does take a bit of fun out of the suggestion game with its version of the Hays Code. Searching for “my balls” is fine. (No 1 answer: “my balls hurt.”) “My penis,” though, returns no suggestions. Same thing for “boobs,” “hardcore,” “porno,” and, well, you get the idea. Google also appears to have removed its suggestions for “blacks are”—a disturbing list that a blogger captured in 2005.
I’m sure the scrubbing helps, but through the lens of Google Suggest, mankind doesn’t come off as evil or prurient. Rather, Suggest creates an endearing portrait of a throng of befuddled seekers. Perhaps my favorite find is the list of suggestions generated by a search for “how do you pronounce”: siobhan, nguyen, sudoku, reuters, yeats, goethe, cannes, porsche, ubuntu. That’s the best list of frequently mangled words that I’ve ever seen. It’s also a helpful reminder that when we search, we are not alone. There are a million other doofuses who can’t say sudoku either.
Got a favorite Google suggestion? Send tips, observations, and transcendentally weird word assocations to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)