Image: Illustration of woman getting advice from Web search
Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
Internet search engines have become everybody’s favorite friend and confidante, acting as a automated respository of answers for just about any kind of question, no matter how strange.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/3/2009 8:58:50 AM ET 2009-08-03T12:58:50

"Why won’t he call?" "When will the economy get better?"  "Why did she have to die?"

The questions are typical of those you’d hear in a therapist’s office, church confessional or cocktail lounge come midnight. But they’re also typical questions posed to Web search engines, along with “Why does my eyelid twitch?" "Is it bad if you throw up blood?" "Why can’t I own a Canadian?"

The queries — some pedestrian, others puzzling — may sound like the ramblings of a drunk or the natterings of a neurotic. But they’re the questions your friends, family and neighbors are regularly asking of an entity that over the last few years has become part librarian, part therapist and part all-seeing eye.

“Search engines have pretty much transformed the way people get information,” says Patricia Wallace, psychologist and senior director of information technology at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth.

“If you had a crazy question like ‘Why did my toenail fall off?’ 10 years ago, what would you have done? You might have gone to the library or maybe asked your doctor in an embarrassed sort of way, but you probably wouldn’t have asked a friend.”

Search engines, however, have become everybody’s favorite friend and confidante, a reliable ally that never flinches or judges or tells you you’re acting like a perv.

“When you’re confronted with nothing but a screen and a keyboard, you’re able to ask a lot of questions you wouldn’t ask anyone in person,” says Wallace, author of “The Psychology of the Internet.”

“There’s no one to raise an eyebrow or laugh hysterically at your idiocy. People have the sense that nobody’s listening online. It’s like a confessional with no priest.”

It’s also highly entertaining, says Michael Bolognino, a social media marketer from Seattle.

“I typed in a random search one day — I believe it was ‘Can I have a’ — and the auto-fill was populated by all these things that didn’t really seem to go together,” he says. “It was a total hodgepodge. I was simultaneously shocked and amused.”

So shocked and amused, he decided to start a blog, which posts screen captures of the auto-fill function of Google’s “ Suggest” feature which guesses what you want as you’re typing in the search box, and “offers suggestions in real time,” according to the search giant.

Google says the phrase “Can you have ...” brings up questions on fiber, miscarriages, vitamin C and mononucleosis, while “Why does ... ” prompts queries about twitching eyes, graying hair and, yes, floating feces.

Even a simple one-word search provides a wealth of information about what’s on people’s minds, says Bolognino, with the word “is” proffering everything from apocalyptic musings (“Is the world going to end in 2012?”) to the secret hope of kindergartners everywhere (“Is Santa real?”).

“I don’t know what the algorithm is for these searches, but I’m under the impression that it’s based on frequency,” says Bolognino. “So that means there are a lot of people wondering why poop floats or why their eye twitches.”

What's the frequency, Kenneth?
According to Google spokesperson Eitan Bencuya, the frequency with which a term comes up is just part of the equation. The other part is, well, something you’ll just have to keep searching for.

“Google Suggest uses a combination of many signals, for example, the overall popularity of various searches, to help rank the refinements it offers," he says. "But in general we typically don’t go too far into detail about the signals our algorithms use."

As for drawing conclusions about what our searches say about us?

“We probably aren’t the best ones to comment on what these trends may suggest,” says Bencuya.

Judy McGuire, a Brooklyn writer and blogger who admits to being “older than Shakira and younger than Madonna,” says the search phrases she comes across via her back-end blog statistics offer plenty of insights into the human psyche, though.

“I see that I’m not the only freak out there and that’s reassuring,” says McGuire, who says people have found her site by searching for such phrases as “dancing granny birthday doll,” “how to make my own tooth” and “everyone hates the prettiest girl in the room.”

“Some of the searches are also very poignant,” she says. “I write about relationships a lot and sometimes the searches are questions like ‘How can I tell if my boyfriend is cheating?’ or ‘How do I make someone fall in love with me?’ It’s like they’re spilling their hopes and fears to a psychotherapist instead of a search engine.”

Gleaning information
Some wonder whether that psychotherapist is taking notes, though.

“Many people are developing an artificial personal relationship with their search engine, an almost delusional relationship with this smart buddy that’s actually a Google spider,” says Shel Israel, social media expert and author of the forthcoming “Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods.”

“But the kicker to all of this is that the people who see what you’re searching for may know more about you than you realize. When you get up close and personal with your search engine, you are being watched.”

Even Wallace, who likens search engines to a confessional without a priest, agrees there may be someone on the other side of the screen.

“It may not be a judging priest, but it’s certainly a commercially active priest,” she says. “Somebody who wants to sell you something.”

According to Wallace, typing in an oddball question such as “Why did my toenail fall off?” will net you not only a list of Web sites with potential answers, but a sponsored link.

“A lot of people have no idea where those sponsored links come from, but they’re ads,” she says. “Marketers buy various key words and depending on how much they’ve decided to spend, you’ll see a sponsored link every time their key word comes up. I find it equally weird that at some point, somebody made the decision to pay money for the key word set ‘toenail fall off.’ ”

Be careful what you ask for
Of course, there are some things people might not want to seek out.

“I search for my name a lot, especially when I’m getting a whole bunch of hate mail,” says McGuire, who writes two weekly relationship columns. “I just get curious about what’s set them off and what others are saying, so I’ll start searching under the same language used in the hate mail and will get ‘Judy McGuire is a bitch,’ ‘Judy McGuire is ugly,’ ‘Judy McGuire hates men.’ ”

The writer says she’s seen enough hate mail and harsh postings over the years to laugh it off, but warns others to think carefully before searching under their own name.

“If you’re the least bit in the public eye — a grade school teacher or even a UPS driver — you can be a target these days,” she says. “Anyone can write anything and there are absolutely no repercussions. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." She can be reached via her Web site, dianemapes.net.

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