Madness Behind the Method (and credits)

Since 2001, Yahoo! has dived into the search stream to come up with our annual lists of lists. Some 631 million people visited yahoo.com this year, which gave us quite a bit of information to work with … a billion or so searches, in fact. How do we do it? With lots of algorithms and brainpower. Here are answers to some common questions.

What’s the math? To compose the Yahoo! Year in Review lists, our editors analyze search queries based upon a number of factors, including absolute volume and growth compared to previous periods, to see which themes and trends bubble to the surface. Of course, individual users and their searches remain anonymous.

Is this really the top 10? Many use the search box like a shorthand address bar, so they type in navigational searches like “www.youtube.com” (or just plain “youtube”). These searches rarely change from year to year. Our top 10 lists reflect the top non-navigational searches.

Why aren’t the midterm elections, Supreme Court hearings, or religious scandals the top searches? What does that say about us as a society? Remember, searches are discrete keywords rather than concepts. News stories like elections have sprawling storylines, and searchers are more likely to type in specific parts of that story, such as the people (for example, “Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle”), events (“election day”), concepts (“how to register to vote,” “tea party”) and so on. Complex events can get boiled down to single words, such as “iraq” or “china.” Even those categories, of course, don’t cover every related search (“iraq war,” “hu jin tao”).

Do people really love Miley Cyrus/Kim Kardashian/Megan Fox that much? Or, to put it in Fox’s words, do they make us want to strangle a mountain ox with our bare hands? Some, but keep in mind that search is not a gauge of popularity. As we like to put it, a search for information is neutral. Its motivations may arise from curiosity, fear, lust, anger, boredom, love, whatever complex emotional machinery that controls our daily actions. A billion searches can give a sketch portrait of a culture in motion. So, let’s leave the ox in peace.

Why do you have lists like Ignominious Exits? Look at a billion searches, and you start to see patterns of what society finds important or compelling. Thus, in addition to straightforward, keyword-related lists like “recipes,” top trends emerge such as Ignominious Exits or 10 Obsessions of 2010. Plus, who doesn’t like the word “ignominious.”

Why does pop culture dominate online? Think of it this way: What isn’t covered extensively in the news, people go online to find out about. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is in the news quite often, so people need fewer updates on him (although he does have the distinction of the only politico to make the Yahoo! Top 10 searches, see below). Also, once someone attains a certain level of fame, they don’t have to do anything to maintain it.

Is this the first time Yahoo! has done this?: Heck no, but the analyses and stories have grown exponentially in the past decade, and Yahoo! Year in Review has spread to 16 countries. Interested in some time travel? Browse these links to press releases, snapshots, and sites from past years:

2001: Napster, World Trade Center, and Harry Potter make the list.
2002: Remember Morpheus?
2003: Christina Aguilera makes the 10th spot.
2004: First year that Britney Spears isn’t the most-searched person.
2005: Six out of the 10 are music artists, including 50 Cent and Green Day.
2006: Searches make for strange bedfellows, like WWE and Beyonce.
2007: Digging deeper beyond the Top 10 of Britney, WWE, Paris, Naruto, Beyonce, Lindsay, RuneScape, Fantasy Football, Fergie, and Jessica Alba.
2008: Barack Obama becomes the first politico to make the cut.
2009: The death of Michael Jackson puts the King of Pop at No. 1.

And now, those credits: Finally, a huzzah to a great team that put together The Yahoo! Year in Review, 2010 edition:

Overall devisers & deciders: Jeff Boissier, Vera H-C Chan, Carolyn Clark, Rohit Dharne, Noah Kanter, Randy Levy
data wranglers: Vera H-C Chan, Cathi Fortner, Paul Fischer, Ravi Padaki, Rebeca Sermer, Mrugank Kiran Surve
site gurus: Noah Kanter, Steve Enders (global leads), Kit Chan, Peter Cheung, Daniel Lopez (engineering), Jeff Boissier (design)
artful designer: Jeff Boissier
scribes & editors
: Vera H-C Chan (U.S. lead), Laura Barcella, Kimberly Chun, Eugenia Chien, Kimberly Chun, Steve Henson, Jessica Hilberman, Lisa Hix, Toan Lam, Katherine Leahey, Mireille Majoor, Christopher Nichols, Meliss O’Neil, Martin Rogers, Cicely Wedgeworth, Dan Wetzel, Claudine Zap (writers); Vera H-C Chan and Julie Wildhaber (leads), Laura Barcella, Joel Edelman, Michele Meyer, Amy Weaver Dorning, Oie Lian Yeh (editors)
video mavens: Anna Robertson (executive producer), Mark Rinehart, Josh Soskin, Grace Jackson, Julian Robinson, Jackie Peters
spreading the word: Rohit Dharne (global lead), Maureen Reagan (marketing), Suzanne Napoli, Ann Wang (sales); Carolyn Clark (global lead), Warren Wong (public relations)
a shout-out to: 15 other Year in Review teams across the globe
and thanks to: our bosses, which include the Yahoo! readers who always go the extra step to understand why.

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