What People Search on Google: Confessions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Everybody Lies" by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do people typically search on Google? What do a person’s Google searches say about them?

Google searches and other internet activity reveal truths that might never come out in traditional data-gathering methods like surveys. In Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz claims that people research topics that they would lie about in real life, such as sexuality, prejudice, and child abuse.

Keep reading to learn what people search on Google and why they won’t discuss it in real life.

Google Confessions

Stephens-Davidowitz shows that in states whose laws oppose gay marriage, the percentage of self-reported gay men is much lower than the estimated average across the whole population. But, he says, if you look at searches on Google and porn sites, the percentage of male users looking for gay porn (or asking how to tell if they’re gay) is much closer to that average. Also, the percentage of gay men as defined by search results is roughly stable from state to state. 

This suggests that search data is a more accurate—and honest—measure of gay male sexuality than traditional surveys. Similarly, Stephens-Davidowitz says that what people search on Google reveals truths about all kinds of topics that we have an incentive to lie about or hide in real life, such as:

1) Sexuality: Stephens-Davidowitz says that, in addition to the data on gay men, search results cut against common stereotypes about sexuality. For example, women are just as likely to ask Google why their husbands or boyfriends don’t want sex as men are to ask the same about their wives and girlfriends. 

2) Prejudice: Stephens-Davidowitz argues that the prevalence of searches for racist terms and phrases reveals that there is a lot more explicit prejudice (as opposed to unconscious bias or systemic inequity) than traditional surveys suggest.

3) Child Abuse: During the 2007-08 financial crisis, experts predicted a rise in child abuse and neglect only to be surprised by a downturn in cases. Stephens-Davidowitz shows that searches like “my mom beat me” went up in heavily affected areas—suggesting that abuse and neglect increased, but that cases went unreported or uninvestigated because of lessened resources.4) Abortion: Stephens-Davidowitz explains that searches about self-induced abortion are more common in states with restrictive abortion laws.

Why Do People Confess to Google?

One of the interesting things about Stephens-Davidowitz’s research is that many Google searches take the form of declarative statements rather than questions or strings of keywords. For example, Stephens-Davidowitz cites queries like, “I regret having children”—statements that seem more like diary entries than search terms. Stephens-Davidowitz acknowledges this oddity, but because he’s more interested in the topics of searches than their syntax, he doesn’t spend much time exploring why so many people “talk” to Google this way.

One possible explanation has to do with how people construct their identities. In a paper examining the causes of dishonest self-reporting on surveys, Philip S. Brenner and John DeLamater propose that people might answer surveys in ways that reflect who they want to be rather than their actual actions. In other words, if honesty is important to you and you consider yourself to be an honest person, you might, if surveyed, misreport how much you lie—not because you’re embarrassed to admit to your occasional dishonesty, but because you subconsciously see the survey as a chance to reconfirm your “honest person” identity by reporting honest behavior.

Brenner and DeLamater’s hypothesis adds an interesting nuance to the idea that users see Google as a safe space. Just as certain questions—like, “Why won’t my partner have sex with me?”—might be hard to ask in public because they’re embarrassing, certain opinions might be hard to acknowledge if they cut against the ways we define ourselves. For example, if you regret having children, that regret might very well threaten your identity as a parent. In other words, just as Google offers a private way to look for information or advice you wouldn’t want to ask other people for, it also seems to offer a place to express thoughts that you might not even want to admit to yourself.

What People Search on Google: Confessions

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  • How people confess their darkest secrets to Google search
  • How this "big data" can be used in lieu of voluntary surveys
  • The unethical uses and limitations of big data

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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