Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=101013
Story Retrieval Date: 5/26/2013 4:00:58 AM CST
WASHINGTON -- If Tina Fey’s Saturday Night Live impressions of Sarah Palin prove anything, it’s that the Web is a tricky gauge of which topics most interest voters.
Need proof? Consider recent data from the Internet monitoring firm Hitwise, which measures popular search terms used on sites such as Google and Yahoo. During the first few days of October, 10 of the top 50 search terms including the word “palin” were related to Saturday Night Live. There was “snl palin,” for example, “tina fey sarah palin,” “tina fey palin,” and “snl sarah palin.”
That’s not all people wanted to know about the Republican vice presidential candidate. There was also “sarah palin hot photos” at No. 7, “sarah palin swimsuit” at No. 9, and “sarah palin fishing photos” at No. 34. Not until “palin couric interview,” coming in at No. 11, do the searches indicate any interest in the Alaska governor’s policy stands.
Sure, polls show the economy and the war top the list of what concerns voters. But Internet search terms turn that list on its head, as voter curiosity over topics such as a candidate’s age, religion, and even looks trump policy concerns.
The Hitwise data pull from the leading 55 search engines, and is based on a sample of some 10 million Web users. And while Sarah Palin generates the most searches by far, the terms paired with the other candidates are no less intriguing.
Two of the top 15 terms used to search for Barack Obama, for example, include some variation of “obama” and “antichrist.” Most of the other leading searches for the Democrat deal with false rumors that he is a Muslim. (He is Christian). For his Republican rival, John McCain, the searches include such gems as “letterman vs. mccain,” “how old is john mccain,” and “john mccain age.”
To be sure, the top-ranked search term for each candidate is some form of his or her name. And as the Nov. 4 election inches closer, there are signs that Americans are doing more substantive searches, according to Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise and author “Click: What Millions of People are Doing Online and Why it Matters.”
“It looks as though U.S. Internet users are just now starting to take this election seriously,” Tancer said. “But there are still those superficial searches.”
So what? Do search terms reveal anything about voters anyway?
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which studies the Internet’s impact on society, said the focus of search terms on candidates’ personal qualities is reflective of the view that many voters “like to assess these folks as human beings as well as political figures.”
But Donald L. Rieck, executive director at the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, is disturbed by the data.
“It’s a fairly deplorable state of the democracy, with two wars and financial problems, that people are Googling fairly fluffy search terms,” he said. “You wonder how well we are being served by the new, fabulous information highway.”
Richard Vega, a senior editor at Yahoo News, is less concerned.
“There’s enough important searches there that I feel people are making an attempt to do their homework,” Vega said.
If some of the searches seem fluffy, he said, it might just be that with all the information available on television, online, in print, and on the radio, people may just want “sort of a mental recess from what’s going on.”
Rainie echoed Vega’s sentiment. ”It might not be the most noble stuff, but at least they’re participating in their own political education.”
Do the campaigns worry about search terms?
To borrow from Sarah Palin, you betcha. As the Washington Post reported Thursday, each campaign is spending millions of dollars to buy ads that run alongside the results of specific search queries on some of the larger search engines. Among the sponsored ads that appear when “sarah palin” is typed into Google, for example, is a link to the McCain-Palin joint fundraising committee.
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