An Insider Look From a Yahoo! Search Trend Spotter

What does your search say about you? Vera H-C Chan is one of a handful of Yahoo! Buzz Log editors who pores through Yahoo! search data to interpret trends and interests. Today, Vera shares with the Yahoo! Search Blog what trendspotting editors do at Yahoo!

When “American Idol” is on, it’s a busy day for a trend spotter like me.

I sometimes sport the fancy title of Web Trends Analyst: My job is to interpret search interest in pop culture and help develop news stories for reporters and readers like you. As you might imagine, a billion or so searches lend themselves to many narratives. Figuring out the “what-does-it-all-mean” goes beyond declaring the winner in an ever-changing popularity contest, or what’s on top of everyone’s mind day to day.  (Although, I can tell you Sandra Bullock has lately beat out Lady GaGa as the most-searched celebrity, and “Twilight” leads in searches for the most anticipated movies of the season.)

Instead, I face questions like this: What does the rise in apocalypse-related searches following natural disasters say about our modern society? Are the lookups following Tiger Woods’ story prurient, or are we repeating our ancient fascination with the morality tale? And can search activity project what the masses will decide, even before the masses know themselves?

Fear not, I harbor no aspirations to be the next Nostradamus (who has measured in the top 30,000 searches in the past 30 days). While you can use search trends to gauge fan interest, you can’t use queries to predict who’ll win an Oscar or the World Series.

But queries can point to some interesting projections when it comes to reality shows, where the fate of a limited set of contestants is decided by a mass audience. American Idol presents an increasingly rare and unique confluence of such circumstances (as does “Dancing with the Stars” to some extent, but the judges’ scores also play into the ABC show’s formula.) By gauging who the core “Idol” voters are (generally ladies 30-54), determining the influence of hometown loyalties, and factoring in the tween factor, we’ve made 3 out of 4 correct projections. (Darn you, dark horse Kris Allen and America’s propensity for the underdog, even among underdogs.)

All the interpretative dance we do around search data is actually more important than figuring out the winner. Analyzing search trends helps us understand the impulses and processes of why people make their choices at that particular moment in time. About the only other comparable phenomenon is, well, the presidential elections. Back in April 2007, when party candidates were just raising money for their presidential campaigns, I ranked the Democrats and Republicans by Search popularity. The order adhered pretty closely to the amount of money they brought in. Back then, a largely unknown Barack Obama edged out Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose first-quarter fundraising was separated only by a mil.

Who we are, as a collective culture, is what fascinates me. As a former features and entertainment reporter, I love having at my fingertips the curiosity of the masses (anonymous and in aggregate). The typical trend story relies on a handful of interviews, and a (hopefully) savvy reading of repeating occurrences or underlying themes. A better trend story pinpoints which specific groups of people practice the trend and maybe throws in some robust poll data or study results. The best ones recognize the historical context in which the trend has (re)emerged and gets to the “why.”

For me, I’m getting to the why. My job is to read the Search tea leaves, distill the narratives that fit the fact and context, and serve up my brew. You can get a sip of what we trendspotting editors do throughout Yahoo! from the Buzz Log, our annual Year in Review and on Twitter via Yahoosearchdata. Keep searching — I’ll be looking out for all of you.

Vera H-C Chan
Senior Editor
Yahoo! Buzz

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