Visual data: search completion

Start typing “Is Nova Scotia…” into a search box, and Google will offer suggestions for completing your query:

a country? an island? in Canada? a good place to live?

All four, natch. Now try “Is Stephen Harper…” and watch Google suggest:

jewish? a freemason? a christian? a good prime minister? getting the h1n1 vaccine? liberal? a conservative?

OK, none of the above.

Search engines generate these suggested query completions by keeping a digital eye on the billions of searches they process every day. Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, artist-scientists at IMB’s Center for Social Software, have been keeping an eye on the phenomenon.

Suggestions for the word “why” result in questions about the sky, cats and marriage… along with “why do dogs eat grass,” and “why do men cheat,” and “why is pink the color for girls.” This labor-saving device — part fortuneteller, part shrink? — has opened a window into our collective soul. With millions of people pouring their hearts into this modern-day confessional, we get a direct, if mysterious, glimpse into the heads of our fellow Web surfers.

Viégas and Wattenberg, whose work is hard to summarize in a single subordinate clause, have developed software to create pictures of these collective queries, which they present in an op ed piece in today’s New York Times.

search completion - santa-s

The size of the arrows and words reflect the number of web pages that answer each of the questions.

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