The State of Google Search

Search remains the most fundamental activity performed in the digital world. Google obviously dominates search – it remains the most-visited website, and still garners more advertising revenue than any other player.

Yet the world of search remains dynamic and constantly changing. To better understand the current state of search, I worked with data from Datos, widely known for its global opt-in consumer panel with anonymized privacy, compliant datasets. Together we examined the top 1,000 search terms on Google each quarter from Q2 2023, back to Q4 2020. (We also looked at the top 1,000 search terms on Amazon – more about that in a separate post). 

Google as desktop/bookmark replacement

The data reveal that people most typically use Google as a jumping off point to other frequently-visited sites. It is essentially a desktop for your digital life – not search in an inquisitive sense, but rather a shortcut to well-known destinations. Browser bookmarks could serve the same function, but most people (apparently) find it easier to use Google. Simple branded searches dominate.

  • Many of those top destinations are, of course, within the Google family of sites and services. Google-owned youtube ranks #1, with gmail and google translate also appearing in the top 10. Google maps and google docs cracked the top 10 in 2021, but now rank #13 and #14, respectively.
  • Meta-owned facebook is a distant second to youtube, with whatsapp web (#9) and instagram (#12) also ranking highly.
  • Amazon consistently ranks in the top 5, historically rising into the top 3 during the holiday-fueled Q4.
  • Falling just outside the top 10, we find Google search is a hub for well-known brands in entertainment, information and commerce, including netflix, twitter, ebay, home depot and walmart.

Chatgpt leads search terms on the rise

The obvious newcomer in the top 10 is chatgpt, which went from essentially no searches a year ago to hundreds of millions searches in Q2 2023. The list of top-rising searches is filled with a host of AI-related terms, all buoyed by the rising tide of interest in chatgpt and its cousins. Rising terms include google bard, bing ai, stable diffusion, midjourney, character ai, open ai, ai detector, and ai checker. Even chatgbt (a misspelling with a “b” instead of a “p”) gets millions of searches – enough to rank in the 200s.

Beyond AI, many search terms rise and fall because they reflect broader trends in popular culture. Examples include…

    • News stories (oceangate submarine, canada wildfires, debt ceiling, bud light)
    • Movie releases (barbie, oppenheimer
    • Video game introductions (zelda)
    • TV finales (succession)
    • Sports events (denver nuggets, nikola jokic, nfl draft 2023)
    • Celebrity deaths (tina turner) and scandals (andrew tate)
    • Musical artists gone viral, both new (ice spice) and old (johannes brahms – a Google Doodle celebrated 190th anniversary of his birth)
    • TikTokers gone viral (dylan mulvaney)
    • Unstoppable cultural forces (taylor swift)
    • New product introductions (Ozempic)

Also notable for its rise: Temu, an emerging ecommerce brand featuring low-cost items shipped directly from China. Temu is essentially “the new Wish,” with similar problems related to product quality, shipping times, and customer service. It advertises heavily on social media, and to those unfamiliar with the brand, a Google search is the first step to evaluating it. Temu went from virtually no searches two years ago to the 89th most searched term in the past quarter.

Long-Tailed Distributions

Like so many aspects of the digital world, the popularity of search terms on Google follows a long-tailed distribution. A few keywords generate huge search interest (the “head” of the distribution), and most keywords get a small fraction of that interest (the “long tail”). And this dramatic long-tail is just within the top 1,000 searches – the long skinny tail would stretch out even further if we included all keywords. There is a widely-reported statistic from Google that 15% of the searches they see are “unique” – meaning that Google has never seen them before – an even further extension of the long, skinny tail.

Analysis shows the long tail of Google searches is growing longer. The statistic known as “kurtosis” is a measure of how long-tailed a distribution is – this metric has tripled over the past two-and-a-half years.

Compared to Amazon searches, the distribution of Google searches is much more long-tailed, with a much steeper drop after the first few terms. Clearly, top Google search terms like youtube, facebook and gmail are central to modern lives in the way that product categories on Amazon are not.

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