NEW YORK — Writers crafting trend stories - or for that matter profiles, lifestyle pieces, reviews, or even news items - are always desperate to prove the popularity of whatever hot new thing they're identifying. They could do some reporting, of course, or find some statistical research, but instead they're technologically smitten, like everyone else. What's a simpler, or faster, way of quantifying a trend than typing a key word or phrase into Google?
Type in almost any person, place, or thing, and the Google search engine will bounce back to you a neat numerical value of the importance of that person, place, or thing. The writer can sit back and let the search engine's brainy algorithms do all the work - and then pick up some tech-savvy bonus points, too. Google - not polls and pie charts - has emerged as a journalist's best friend, and best source.
Take the Feb. 2 issue of The New Yorker, which features not just one but two examples of reportorial Googling to gauge a subject's popularity. TV critic Nancy Franklin cites Google in her article "L.A. Love" for, of all things, comparing the relative popularity of naked men and women. "A Google search for 'naked men,' " she writes, "yields about 600,000 results; 'naked women' yields more than a million." Ergo, the female body must be more desirable than the male. Case closed. Why? Because Google said so.
Franklin's colleague Michael Specter can't disagree with that reasoning. After all, he relies on similar sourcing in his story "Miracle in a Bottle" to gauge the popularity of the diet drug Zantrex. "If you type 'Zantrex' into Google," he writes, "more than 100,000 citations will appear."
Though he preceded the sentence with evidence and statistics of the drug's increased use, he seemed worried that in this dotcom age, Internet-savvy readers would be left unconvinced without hard search-engine evidence. Scientific studies as proof? Nah. Web searches? Now you've got me.
But it turns out, some of Google's biggest journalist fans are at the Los Angeles Times. In a Jan. 18 article, Times writer Steve Lopez wrote, "I went to Google on the Internet, typed in the words 'Buddhist,' 'bait,' and 'Marina del Rey,' and got a hit." ("Remarkable work, Steve," I can imagine his editors marveling.)
In another January story, the newspaper's magazine ran a feature on sports scribe Frank Deford.
He's a "distinguished writer," claims staff writer Glenn Bunting. The evidence? "A Google search of his name produces more than 21,000 hits." And to prove Audrey Hepburn's continuing popularity a decade after her death, at least one member of the paper's staff got busy last year and did what any brave, new world journalist would do: She Googled "Audrey Hepburn" and found 793 websites devoted to the movie star.
But of course, it's not just The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times that employ journalists dogged enough to use this aggressive investigative technique.
Mary Carole McCauley of The Baltimore Sun recently wrote that "no other instrument is targeted more frequently than the viola" for jokes. The reason? "Type in the term 'viola jokes' on the Google search engine and you will get 19,700 hits." (Who hasn't heard a good viola joke lately?)
Laura Sessions Stepp of The Washington Post recently observed a new "rage" sweeping the nation: hating Britney Spears. How does she document this anti- Britney hysteria? She reveals her methodology proudly, at the top of her article: A Google search of "Britney hater" that brought 9,000 hits.
Major newspapers might regularly trounce their regional competition, but with this powerful new reporting tool, the little guys can put up a fight.
For those curious about the new craze for building backyard ice rinks, The Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash., confirms that the phrase "build backyard ice rink" yields 5,400 Google hits. Looking to try cow tipping? Florida's Tallahassee Democrat suggests typing into Google for tips on tipping.
"If information is power, then Google has helped change the world," wrote Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post. "Google works. Google knows."
True, Google is a handy and smart website as well as an excellent starting place to gather background information or to brainstorm for story ideas (or, for that matter, a fun way to spy on friends and exes). But it's neither a scientific nor accurate tool to gauge a subject's popularity. Its data can be faulty, fleeting, and, as any doctoral student or fact-checker knows, terribly inaccurate. Not only because the search engine brings up blogs and message boards and Bob Andrews's freshman term paper on Western civilization - none of which was probably fact- or spell-checked - but because its hit-counts fluctuate faster than poll numbers in Iowa.
For example, a Google search for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in mid-January netted 1,460,000 hits. (This was reported by - you guessed it - the L.A. Times.) Dr. Dean's popularity has since tanked, yet a Feb. 10 search of his name yielded more than 2 million results (that's also more than John Kerry, proving Google's limitations at predicting primary results).
Google also has its share of quirks. For one, it's self-referential; Google the word "Google" and you get 43.2 million hits. What's more, type the phrase "miserable failure" and the first item returned is a page from the White House website that contains President Bush's biography. And as you might remember from news reports, for a while Google searchers found nothing when looking for "French military victories," because the search engine brought up zero pages.
Sad to say, plugging Google has become almost a telltale sign of sloppy reporting, a hack's version of a Rolodex. Journalists should be sourcing hard statistics, not search-engine evidence, to bolster their stories.
Likewise, readers should be wary of the numbers that writers cite from Google searches. Case in point: Google the aforementioned New Yorker writers, and you'll find that Nancy Franklin is more than twice as popular as Michael Specter, who scores only 1,750 hits versus her 3,770. Of course the data are misleading: Ms. Franklin shares her name with a porn star.
• Lionel Beehner is research editor of the weekly New York Press. He writes about media, comedy, and cultural affairs. When Googled, his name is cited 149 times. This is adapted from an article that originally appeared last week on Mediabistro.com.