It would be the understatement of the year to say that September 2008 was an interesting month for South African politics.
News of corruption trials, resignations and new presidents flew across the internet, and number-one search engine Google offers insight into all of this activity.
Web searches provide a window on world trends and interests. By looking at aggregated Google searches — that is, not tied to any particular person but rather seen as a portion of global searches — one can produce a Zeitgeist of what South Africa’s internet population finds most interesting.
While Thabo Mbeki’s resignation came as somewhat of a shock to most South Africans, Jacob Zuma’s September court case was always going to garner a ton of attention and interest — it was, after all, covered extensively in the weeks and months leading up to the court date.
One could be forgiven for thinking that more attention would be given to Mbeki’s resignation, right? Wrong!
If Google search trends are anything to go on, Zuma’s getting off (so to speak) was more popular with the average web-connected South African than Mbeki’s resignation.
Furthermore, within days of Mbeki’s resignation, the number of search requests for Kgalema Motlanthe, then incoming South African President, began rising. Before that, he wasn’t even a blip on the South African search radar.
Another interesting little gem is that Trevor Manuel, the Finance Minister, was searched for more than any other local politician in the week of September 23, while the Mail & Guardian‘s own cartoonist, Zapiro, shot up Google’s search rankings shortly after publishing his controversial “rape of justice” cartoon.
“While these search trends aren’t an indication of the searching public’s sentiment about one or another politician or topic, they do give us a good indication of what the online community finds interesting. Search engines are, after all, designed to ease online users’ ability to locate the content they want,” says Stafford Masie, country manager for Google in South Africa.
Looking a little deeper into what people search for can potentially offer powerful insights.
For example, using the newly released Google Insights for Search tool, which allows the public to see which search trends are hot worldwide, we can see that those who search for “Barack Obama” in the United States also search for “Barack Obama Muslim”, indicating a strong interest in Obama’s faith.
Politics not your bag? Maybe you’d be interested in knowing that rugby is the most-searched-for sport in the country this year, followed by cricket, golf and soccer. Did you know that the Tour de France was one of the fastest-rising searches in July? The Olympics took that honour in August, with Motlanthe and Hurricane Ike doing it in September.
If you’re not a jock, you might want to know which of Isidingo, 7de Laan, Generations or Egoli is most popular among local soap-opera aficionados. Bet you’ll never guess what the city of Nelspruit searches for most, or whether South African internet users love Facebook more than money.
Google isn’t selfish with this information: in fact, anyone can reveal pretty much anything about what South Africans search for online simply by playing around with the search-trends tool on the local Google website.