Searching for Marketing Substance in Google’s 2013 Zeitgeist

By December 18, 2013Uncategorized


Google released Zeitgeist 2013 yesterday. Their annual roundup of the year in search has been covered by a blurb from most every major news outlet. And like so many other best of the year lists, it will likely be forgotten once the big ball drops on New Years. But, beyond the superficial popularity contests between celebrities there is some good data for marketers to draw from here and, as Google Trends does daily, it can help us get a better picture of the direction of online content and the users who search for it.

A quick note on the top Google searches in the Zeitgeist. These reports are largely based off trends in search and not total search volume. So when someone says that ‘Paul Walker’ was the top Google search in the US for 2013, well that’s just plain wrong. Trends are measured by Google as the volume of search for a query for a given period versus the previous period, in this case 2013 vs. 2012. So while Paul Walker may be the top trending person and the top overall trending search query, he doesn’t even crack the top 10 for overall most searched person. In fact, none of the top 4 most trending people are in the top 10 most searched. When drawing conclusions from this data, it’s important to realize that sometimes a trend is just a trend; it won’t be anything more than a temporary blip. The key is deciphering what made those blips and spikes in public interest so popular and to be prepared to harness similar circumstances in the future.

What Are People Attracted To? The Emotional Lens of Content

Google has two categories listed at the top of their Zeitgeist; People and Events. The top overall trending searches come exclusively from these two categories. Each of these stories are also related to powerful emotions. More and more we are seeing emotions become a major influencer on whether something goes viral and how much people will pay attention to it. Upworthy has taken off in 2013 in part because of their emotionalizing of stories (and titles).

In essence the emotions driving these trending searches can be boiled down into three categories; disaster, inspiration and entertainment. From looking at the top 10 overall trending results, we can see that both inspiration and disaster hold a strong grip on the searching public, while entertainment is a distant third.


The first emotion, disaster, is quite evident in the top two trending searches; the death of Paul Walker and the bomb attacks at the Boston Marathon. Tragic events like these have always been discussion pieces in social life, so it’s no big shock to see these topping the charts. Death is the most popular topic with four of the top trending searches related to celebrity deaths.     

The second category, inspiration, is represented by both good and bad news. The Royal Baby easily qualifies as an inspirational story. Because of his advanced age, the recent death of Nelson Mandela can be seen as both a disaster and an inspirational event, as people recall his storied and inspirational life.

Thirdly, we have entertainment, which is represented here through the viral popularity of the Harlem Shake at number 8. Entertainment can be achieved through several approaches, but it seems two of the best approaches are humor and surprise.

Of course there are overlaps between these emotional categories, and that is often what makes the most compelling stories. At number 5, the release of the iPhone 5s has an obvious relation to entertainment, but at the same time can be seen as inspirational in that it represents the future of technology. Occasionally, disaster and entertainment will go hand in hand, as was the case with this years VMA’s (which also helped skyrocket the notoriety/infamy of Miley Cyrus) as the number 3 trending event.

Perhaps more so than any of the other top trending stories, Adrian Peterson at number 10 best represents these three emotions. Three separate stories followed Peterson throughout 2013 and helped make him the only athlete in the top 10. Here is how they break down from an emotional perspective:


  • Disaster: Adrian Peterson lost a baby son due to violence.  

  • Inspiration: He overcame a terrible knee injury that many thought would end his career.

  • Entertainment: He went on to win the NFL MVP award and was only 10 yards short of breaking the all time rushing record.


Months later, Adrian Peterson’s son is still a trending search.

Connecting Content to People

While disaster and inspiration are two powerful emotions and play a large role in the popularity of a story, they can’t be easily manufactured. Unless you have a hot, new piece of technology like Tesla Motors or Apple (both highly trending in their respective industry categories), you might have difficulty in inspiring people. On the other end, trying to figure out a way to capitalize off a celebrity death isn’t likely to earn you a lot of positive feedback and can be damaging to a brand. Because of the strong emotional connections involved, these forms of content can be risky and may not be the best to pursue for most clients.

Instead, marketers will generally need to rely on the more controllable, but harder to manufacture emotion of entertainment. This has lead many to ask the question – what kind of entertainment are people looking for in their online content? While that’s an important question (and one we’ve answered somewhat with our brief discussion of emotions), with the shift to a more interactive and personable web perhaps the better question is how do people want content to entertain them? And, further still, how does the way content is presented to them contribute to their entertainment?

From exploring the Google Zeitgeist, we can come up with two answers:

Visualization and Personalization

There aren’t a lot of search categories that marketers can look to for meaningful or non-niche specific insights (see: Beer, Cocktails, Dog Breeds and Celebrity Pregnancies) in the 2013 Google Zeitgeist. However, there is some love for mobile (and we all know by now that the future is mobile) as Google provides us with the top trending searches for apps.  

In 2013 the top trending apps were BitStrips, an app for creating your own personalized cartoons/memes to share with friends via Facebook that seemingly took off overnight, and Vine, Twitter’s new video sharing network. SnapChat, the image sharing app for tweens and tweens-at-heart, follows close behind in 5th place. There are also three apps in the top 10 that are capitalizing off localization of data to create more personalized connections with the Internet. MeetMe, Tinder and InstaFriends, for better or worse, all involve connecting mobile users with those near them.


What involves more personalization and visualization than a cartoon of yourself?

Alone, these findings could be written off as anomalies, or for lack of a better word – trends. But when we look at other indicators online such as the popularity of infographics, the growth of video marketing, Google’s focus on local results, the personalization of search and social media, the increased promotion of media vs. text in search results; the picture begins to come together. People are attracted to and share content that connects emotionally and they want that content delivered in a way that is personalized and visually enticing.

Staying Pretty on the Outside and the Inside

Perhaps no other indicator of the shift to visualization and personalization is more clear than Google’s Zeitgeist itself. Beyond the lists of top 10’s, Google has gone a step further with their presentation of data for 2013 when compared to the 2012 Zeitgeist. This year we are given trend results specific to the city we live as well as our friends, with a large gallery of uploaded Google+ images that you can upload to yourself. We also get an introduction to the Zeitgeist, like last year, presented through video. Finally, we have the top 100 searches presented in a swath of images via a gallery similar to the one for user uploaded images. This allows the data to be displayed in a beautiful and interactive format, but the core purpose of having a top 100 list is lost amidst the collage as there is no way to explore, rank or analyze them beyond randomly clicking on images.


So where’s number one?

This interactive feature more than any other gives a glimpse at the potential successes and hazards facing the future of online content; Google has created something that is immersive, attractive, inspirational and entertaining but, ultimately, lacking in value. While marketers and content producers need to adapt to and openly accept the shift to a more visual and personable online landscape, they can’t forget the core underlying purpose of content, which is to deliver value by providing people with the information they are searching for and interested in.

Zoe Huden

Author Zoe Huden

More posts by Zoe Huden