What Google Trends Tells Us About Ourselves is No Lie


2023 has come to an end, and Google Trends is reporting the most popular Google searches for the year. Google Trends shows the top searches by category, and reveals what people in any country, state or city want to know, find, eat, watch, or buy. And if interpreted correctly, Google searches can give more timely and accurate results than surveys and polls. Why? Because people lie. They lie on surveys, to each other, and to themselves – but not to Google.

Survey Says…People Lie

In the movie Magic Town, Jimmy Stewart stars as a pollster who finds the perfect representative sample of the American population in a single, small town. But once his secret is out the townspeople become self-aware. Knowing their opinions hold such power changes their answers and skews survey results, rendering his predictions useless.

Magic Town Movie Poster

How Much Do People Lie?

A study by University of Massachusetts in 2002 found that within 10 minutes, 60% of people will lie 2-3 times. That means if two people are talking, they will tell 6 lies between them in 10 minutes. It also means that more than half the time, people are lying to you. The researcher of the study said that men and women lied the same amount, but about different things:

“Women were more likely to lie to make the person they were talking to feel good, while men lied most often to make themselves look better.”

people lying to each other

What Do People Lie About?

According to the book Everybody Lies, people lie about sex a lot. If you add up all the times single men said they had sex and used a condom during a year, it equals more condoms than were actually manufactured. In another example, the self-reported rate of homosexual men in Mississippi was half that of some other states, while searches for gay porn were as high there as anywhere else. In fact, the lower the reported rate of gay men, the more their wives were suspicious.

The most searched-for term on Google after “Is my husband…” is not “cheating” or “depressed” but “gay,” and that question is asked far more frequently in states where the survey reports (of male homosexuality) are low.

Bloomberg: People Lie but Search Data Tell the Truth

Why People Lie to Themselves

People lie to others to make themselves look good, but they also lie to themselves to feel smarter. Netflix users used to build their queues with classic movie titles they should watch, but never did. When Netflix realized this, they used data to suggest movies more similar to the ones previously watched than the aspirational titles in their queues. And that’s when Netflix usage took off!

Imagine a World Where Everybody Tells the Truth

In the 2009 movie The Invention of Lying, everyone tells the truth and says just about anything they’re thinking out loud. In the film, all commercials tell the truth, and since there’s no fiction, the only thing on TV is documentaries. During one televised documentary, a commercial for Coca-Cola pleas with viewers to repurchase their product…truthfully:

Hi, I’m Bob. I’m the spokesperson for the Coca-Cola company. I’m here today to ask you to continue buying coke. Sure, it’s a drink you’ve been drinking for years, and if you still enjoy it, I’d like to remind you to buy it again sometime soon. It’s basically just brown sugar water, we haven’t changed the ingredients much lately, so there’s nothing new I can tell you about that. We changed the can around a little bit, though. See, the colors here are different there, and we added a polar bear so the kids like us. Coke is very high in sugar and like any high calorie soda it can lead to obesity in children and adults who don’t sustain a very healthy diet. So that’s it, it’s Coke. It’s very famous, everyone knows it. I’m Bob, I work for Coke, and I’m asking you to not stop buying Coke. That’s all. It’s a bit sweet. Thank you.

The Invention of Lying
Coca-cola polar bears market to kids
3 out of 4 polar bears prefer Coca-Cola (Not really)

Nobody Lies to Google

Everybody lies to everybody else, and themselves, but not to Google. And search data, along with other “big data” sources, can be better at predictions because it measures actions; not intentions. But there’s a catch – you must find the right data and ask the right question.

83.7% of Statistics are Made Up on the Spot (I Just Made That Up)

Surveys measure what people intend; not what they will do. In 2016 the polls said Hillary Clinton would be the next US President. Man did they get it wrong. Why? Because people lie, all the time, about everything. An article on NPR speculated,

“Voters didn’t want to tell a stranger on the phone that they were voting for Trump, who said and did so many controversial things on the campaign trail.”

NPR.org: 4 Possible Reasons The Polls Got It So Wrong This Year

On election night in November, 2016, most Americans went to bed thinking Hillary Clinton would be elected president. Even TV networks prematurely declared her the winner. Looking back, there was an extremely accurate indicator of Donald Trump’s victory in key areas that swayed the election in his favor. According to Everybody Lies it was how many times people Googled the “N-word”. Surprised? On a map, Trump’s upsets mirrored Google searches for the N-word in places you might not expect such as upstate New York, eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. These traditionally blue, or Democrat, areas voted red, and Americans awoke the next morning with Trump as the winner.

That’s why Google searches are better at showing what people are really doing or thinking versus what they are saying.

I’ve never taken performance-enhancing drugs.How to pass a Tour de France drug test.
I’ve never cheated on you.How long does chlamydia last?
Sandy Hook never happened.How to gaslight on a radio show.
No thanks, I’m on a diet.Donut shop near me.
The wine was rich and complex with distinctive terroir. Expensive wine tasting notes.
I did not have sex with that woman.Impeachment defense lawyers near me.
Source: PFMA Institute of Truthfulness (That’s a Lie)

The Truth Google Search Will Set You Free

Google search for the truth

Google searches are usually conducted in private, giving users a sense of anonymity. This anonymity lets individuals to be more honest than they might be in public or social settings. And since the intent behind a search is to find information or solve a problem, it overrides the impulse to lie, because what’s the use? But best of all, search engines do not judge search queries; they merely return results.

What Were the Most Popular Google Searches of 2023?

The most frequent Google search terms were navigation longcuts for the websites Google, Amazon, YouTube, and Walmart. Why do people search and click these well-known sites rather than simply adding “.com”? Because searching Google is synonymous with accessing the web and people just fall into the habit.

Also, many people know that mispelllign a web address can lead to a malicious site with a URL spelled nearly the same as their intended one. This is called typosquatting, and criminals use these fake sites to spread malware and steal passwords or credit card numbers. So, people trust clicking on Google more than their own typing.

What Were the Rising Google Searches in 2023?

2023 saw the widespread adoption of AI LLMs (Large Language Models) like ChatGPT and Character.AI, so these were the hottest new searches of the year.

  1. ChatGPT – OpenAI’s LLM.
  2. Character AI – A chatbot that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to create conversations with real or fictional characters.
  3. iPhone 15 – Apple’s latest offering.
  4. Temu – A direct-from-China online marketplace offering cheap goods and knock-offs.
  5. Oppenheimer – One of the most popular movies of the year. (I guess Barbie was self-explanatory.)
  6. Weather – You can also type “forecast”.
  7. Connections – The new word game from New York Times that was last year’s new Wordle.
  8. Super Bowl 2023 – Spoiler alert: the KC Chiefs beat the Philly Eagles 38 to 35.
  9. Taylor Swift – Her world tour grossed over $1 billion, and she started dating Travis Kelce of the KC Chiefs.
  10. Jamie Fox – The actor and comedian suffered a much-publicized health scare.

How Do Google Searches Differ by Location?

Interests, tastes, and news vary by location, and Google tracks the top and rising searches down to the city level. For example, people in San Francisco search for air quality, earthquakes, and power outages, while searchers in Fargo, North Dakota are more interested in the Minnesota Vikings, northern lights forecast, and the wind chill factor.

Top searches in Las Vegas included The Sphere and “precio del dolar en Mexico” for visitors exchanging pesos to dollars, where searchers in Miami, FL were interested in Inter Miami – the soccer team of Argentinian World Cup champion Lionel Messi, and the Brightline train.

soccer player kicks a giant peso coin with Las Vegas in the background

As you might expect, popular Google searches in Denver, CO were Denver Nuggets, Denver Broncos, and CU Football. If you’re wondering about the weather in Arkansas, people there searched Google for both ice storm and excessive heat warnings last year. Hawaiians searched for Kauai, Maui fire, and dollar to yen, while folks in Kansas searched for Chiefs schedule 2023, country music singer Zach Bryan, and K-State (my alma mater) basketball.

Google Trends can tell you the terms most searched in categories from news to shopping and sports, and for any time range you specify. I’ll give you one guess what the fastest rising search term of 2020 was…it starts with “coronavirus”.

Open the Google Trends Time Capsule

Beyond the year in search, Google’s Time Capsule unearths the world’s most searched terms going back to 1999 in topics such as athletes, movies, TV shows, and video games. Judging by Google searches, Cristiano Ronaldo is the most popular athlete of the past 25 years, followed closely by David Beckham. Here’s a trip down memory lane paved with Google searches:

YearAthleteMovieVideo Game
1999David BeckhamToy Story 2Final Fantasy VIII
2000Anna KournikovaX-MenDiablo II
2001Anna KournikovaHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneCounter Strike
2002David BeckhamSpider-ManThe Sims
2003David BeckhamThe Matrix ReloadedFinal Fantasy X2
2004David BeckhamThe Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the RingCounter Strike
2005Cristiano RonaldoStar Wars Episode IIIWorld of Warcraft
2006RonaldinhoHigh School MusicalWorld of Warcraft
2007Cristiano RonaldoTransformersWorld of Warcraft
2008Cristiano RonaldoTwilightWorld of Warcraft
2009Cristiano RonaldoTwilightWorld of Warcraft
2010Cristiano RonaldoAvatarWorld of Warcraft
2011Cristiano RonaldoThe Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1Super Mario Bros
2012Cristiano RonaldoThe AvengersMinecraft
2013Cristiano RonaldoFast and Furious 6Minecraft
2014Cristiano RonaldoFrozenMinecraft
2015Cristiano RonaldoFifty Shades of GreyMinecraft
2016Cristiano RonaldoDeadpoolMinecraft
2017Conor McGregorXXX: Return of Xander CageMinecraft
2018Cristiano RonaldoAvengers: Infinity WarFortnite
2019Cristiano RonaldoAvengers: End GameFortnite
2020Kobe BryantFrozenMinecraft
2021Cristiano RonaldoSpider-Man: No Way HomeMinecraft
2022Cristiano RonaldoTop Gun MaverickWordle
2023Lionel MessiBarbieMinecraft
Google Trends Time Capsule

What Google Searches Will Be the Most Popular in 2024?

What new and rising search terms does 2024 have in store? I suspect AI will continue its hot streak, plus election-related searches for Trump, and possibly his conviction. Look for “deepfake” to take center stage, as in AI-generated fake video and audio created to influence election results. And the solar eclipse in April will likely shine brightly.

Will Google Search Be Replaced By ChatGPT Answers?

But a better question is how much Google search will be replaced by ChatGPT and other LLMs. After all, the intent of a search is to find an answer, and that’s exactly what ChatGPT offers, without having to search through the search results. And that’s the truth!