Google, Michael Jackson, and Scholarly Research

The Google Blog recently published an interesting post that contextualizes the media hype surrounding Michael Jackson’s death against the terms the world was searching for in the Google index on June 25, the day he passed away. R.J. Pittman, Google’s director of Project Management (but ostensibly one of his employees) notes that the demand for information about Jackson and his death was so sudden that “Google News initially mistook it for an automated attack. As a result, for about 25 minutes yesterday, when some people searched Google News they saw a “We’re sorry” page before finding the articles they were looking for.” The post’s accompanying graph, which shows how searches for MJ dramatically spiked in about thirty minutes, is an interesting way to see how quickly we wanted information on the King of Pop.

The Google Blog’s post also provides a link to their Hot Trends for June 25. Pittman shows this page so we can see just how often the Google index was searched with a phrase such as “michael jackson rushed to hospital.” I particularly like the fact that the second-most popular search for the day is “michael jackson dead 2009” – showing that when it comes to celebrity deaths, many of us hold to the saying, “once bitten, twice shy”.

But what’s more interesting, I think is, is the number of Michael Jackson-related phrases that made it to the top 100. 26 of the 100 most popular searches on June 25 were directly related to Michael Jackson and 6 more were directly related to Los Angeles-based media. Dozens more made requests for other news outlets, as well. Pittman doesn’t tell us in this post exactly how many times information was requested on MJ, but that fact that 26 different permutations of the subject made for the most popular retrievals of the day calls to mind how important the Google-verse has become to ready reference. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it reveals just how adept this search engine has become at retrieving useful data.

Search Trends on the death of Michael Jackson, June 25, 2009 (my markup)
Search Trends on the death of Michael Jackson, June 25, 2009 (my markup)

But at the same time, it reminds me of the difficulties we (scholars and professionals) have when contending with the giant Googlebot. Google really can be everything to everyone sometimes, but this can blur the boundaries between what might be useful and what might be peripheral to a student’s research. At the time that the world was demanding their MJ fix through Google, I was putting the finishing touches on some library materials to help teach students how to access scholarly materials via Google Scholar and Google Books. And now, after contemplating the Hot Trends page this evening, I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the fact that I can help some one to create an effective Google search strategy for post-human feminism and sci-fi film by using the same search box they used to search “jeff goldblum is watching you poop” (no. 68 on the Hot Trends list, above).

That’s not to say that Google is bad or that popular culture is bad – I love both. But perhaps it highlights the need for information professionals to show people how to wade through all the flotsam and jetsam that exists out there in the Internet. Google and other indexes may have brought the world to our fingertips, but we could all use a little help organizing it and determining its utility.