As all newspaper and magazine editors worth their salt know, readers love lists.
Money magazine knew this long ago when it first started issuing its “Best Places to Live” issue. Business magazines followed suit with their “Best Cities for Business” issues. Mimicking the British music press, Rolling Stone finally got around to issuing its lists of best rock albums and best singles.
All this was an inexact science, but at least the business and financial press could carefully weigh its rankings through comparative charts of crime rates, tax rates and arts organizations. Meanwhile, hordes of people yet to turn 30 scratched their heads in wonderment over Rolling Stones’ choice of top albums.
Now everyone’s in on the action, and the tools of measurement are getting sharper by the hour. Witness, as you certainly will once you’ve got time to spare, the recently inaugurated Google Trends feature with the charming tagline, “See what the world is searching for.” Using IP-address information from the company’s server logs, Google Trends ranks various subject queries according to, as the company says, “a best guess about where queries originated.”
I first read about this new Google feature whilst perusing Time columnist Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish. Entering the word “sex” into Google Lab’s search field, Sullivan found that, among the top 10 nations searching for sex on the Internet, Pakistan ranked first, Egypt second, Vietnam third and Iran fourth. Trailing out the list were other predominantly Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Quelle surprise. Who would have guessed that so many Internet users in so many devoutly conservative nations thirsted for the risquÃ©?
Google Trends can narrow its results by regions as well as cities. And within the United States region, Sullivan mentioned that Salt Lake City ranked No. 8 nationally in Internet searches for sex.
Naturally, I couldn’t resist further investigations. Neither, for that matter, could many editorial staffers here at City Weekly.
Before getting carried away, however, it’s probably best to mention Google’s important note regarding the accuracy of its product. Long sentence short, pesky data-sampling issues and approximation tools mean that many city and region rankings may contain some inaccuracies. “We hope you find this service interesting and entertaining, but you probably don’t want to write your Ph.D dissertation based on this information,” the company says. Results proffered by Google Trends will be updated on a monthly basis. And, of course, the results are skewed from the beginning, as they’re based on households with Internet access.
In the meantime, I found the results of my own Google Trends queries eerily accurate, surprising and even disturbing. And because search queries at the wholesome end of the virtue scale'as we’ll call it for lack of a better term'proved so dead accurate, I feel I’ve little reason to doubt the product’s findings on the'how shall we say it?'darker end of the scale.
Let’s take the virtuous end of the scale first. Salt Lake City leads the nation in Internet Google searches for “Jesus,” “chocolate,” and “home recipes,” while San Antonio edges us out only slightly on “family values” searches. Why are you not surprised?
Now hide the children and brace yourself. Salt Lake City ranks first nationally in searches for “pornography,” “strip tease,” “nudity,” “naked girls,” “gay pix,” “masturbation” and “masturbating.” We rank second nationally in searches for “hot sex” and “big boobs” and the rather innocuous descriptor of “naughty.” We rank first and third in searches for female genitalia both in terms and manner that cannot be described here. We fall into third and fourth place in searches for subjects under the heading of “lesbian” and “lesbo,” respectively. Disturbingly, our fair city ranks fifth in searches regarding “incest.”
Perhaps it’s fair to note at this point another statement from Google regarding its fascinating new product: “â€¦ instead of measuring overall interest in a topic, Google Trends shows users’ propensity to search for that topic on Google on a relative basis.”
A mathematician or computer scientist might explain to me the finer points of that distinction. For now, “propensity to search” and “relative basis” seem pretty damned close to “interest.” Furthermore, other subjects yield results that make inherent sense. Much as you might expect, New York City and San Francisco rank consistently near the top of all searches for “wine,” “modern art,” “yoga” and “meditation.
There’s something even charming about the way Salt Lakers search for their pornography, too. Doubtless more experienced than we, Las Vegans skip the formality and search for plain old “porn,” and so top the national list in that search.
I’ve since taken a shower following my rigorous research but find it interesting on several levels. LDS Church members will no doubt boil these rankings down to the scourge of this city’s Gentile populace, but I’ve other hunches. When authority forces something as all-powerful as human sexuality into the forbidden zone, the curious are bound to sneak a peek or two, or three or four. Few entities beside the LDS Church have given Internet pornography so much publicity as of late.
The irony is, of course, delicious, even more so when served with a generous helping of hypocrisy. A fleet of Hummers adorned with “Support Our Troops” decals could not top it. Freud himself would feel compelled to rework his theories of repression, sublimation, fixation and regression. Because if Google’s methodology is even half as accurate as it hopes, it seems clear that a lot of us have no need to sublimate our sexual desires.
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” Oscar Wilde wrote. That certainly seems true where Salt Lake City’s concerned. Or at least, as Google would have it, “on a relative basis.”