Burning Questions

In 2010 about 1.5 percent of searches every month were questions that involved who, what, when, where, why, and how. That’s no small number when you consider the billions of queries that hit a search box. And that doesn’t include those leading-verb queries, such as “Can I eat kiwi skin?” or “Is eating an entire can of beans bad?”

People asked questions that were serious-minded, like “What is censure in Congress?” Quirky questions like “How to make fried Oreos?” Earnest, wondering questions like “What is a lady in waiting?” But why pose full questions to a search engine when a few keywords will do? It’s as though people expect the computer screen to talk back like a friend.

And that’s only natural: Human beings are basically conversational, and posing questions and getting answers is a most natural human activity, says Yahoo! Labs’ Elizabeth Churchill, trained in psychology and interactive system design. “As search engines get better, people are more and more inclined to treat them like a conversational partner — a friend — and use natural language to ask the question.”

Plus, like a real pal, a search engine won’t judge you for the questions you ask. It won’t rat you out to your friends when you want to know, “Is Jack Daniels whisky gluten-free?”

We’ve gathered 10 of the year’s most popular questions and, more importantly, consulted some experts to get answers. Yes, even for the question “What is love?” Hey, what are friends for?

–Eugenia Chien

Before joining Yahoo! as a Search editor, Eugenia Chien was a reporter at New America Media in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, on KQED, and on KALW. She crushes on geek heroes, transit enthusiasts, and animal lovers.