The Internship, a new movie starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, just opened in theaters nationwide. The two actors play salesmen who talk their way into an internship at Google then proceed to compete against a bunch of brilliant, tech-savvy college students.
The movie, which many reviews have described as an overt marketing ploy on Google’s part, reflects a company that emphasizes a fun, humane workplace.
That's probably a pretty accurate portrayal. But the company has inadvertently given me a window into a darker side of life.
We’re all keenly aware of the vast body of knowledge Google allows us to access. We’re perhaps less aware of what the searches for information tell us about those engaged in the hunt. I've been thinking about that a lot lately.
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In my capacity as editorial director of Next Avenue, I spend a lot of time looking at and analyzing information produced by Google Analytics, a tool relied on by many of those involved in running websites. Its front page stays open on my desktop as I work and I keep a close eye on the data it displays in real time.
At any given moment, I can see the metrics relating to traffic, the number of people visiting Next Avenue. I know their locales and how they got to our site in the first place, whether it's a social media platform or search engine. I follow the paths they take to the articles they're clicking on and the amount of time they spend reading and commenting.
The flow of information in Google Analytics is fascinating and, at times, even mesmerizing. Watching the ever-shifting graph lines, numerical counts and map dots (which shrink and grow with the numbers of people reading in a particular place) is akin to watching the rhythmic spinning of a front-loading washing machine.
Among the many metrics that show up in the tool, the most gripping and revealing to me are the search terms people use to reach our site’s content — the words they type into the search box.
Let me be clear. I have no way of knowing who’s typing those words. Anyone who clicks on a link to our site remains anonymous even as his or her queries get cataloged in Google Analytics.
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The strings of words and phrases typed that eventually lead readers to our site range from the entirely logical to the startlingly incongruous and wacky. And they provoke a wide range of emotions in me.
The Straight and Narrow
Straightforward queries confirm the needs and interests that informed the site’s mission and led to its formation — namely, opinions, perspectives and information that help those in the second half of adulthood lead a more vital, meaningful life.
These sorts of search terms clearly indicate a desire to learn more about healthful dietary practices; solve work and relationship dilemmas; get answers to finance, caregiving and work questions; and delve into travel and culture topics.
It’s heartening for me to see that there’s a hunger for the kind of information we provide and that the content we’re creating serves real and pressing needs. I also love the fact that people of all ages are searching for, finding and reading our pieces — many of the subjects we tackle don’t apply exclusively to older adults and their unique concerns. For instance, such search terms as "5 foods not to eat" will lead to advice that anyone can benefit from.
Funny and Kooky
But at times I burst out laughing at the indirect way people look things up. Seriously, tears roll down my face. While I tend to search in a very linear, precise manner, I’ve discovered that some folks take a wildly different approach. And yet it works for them, despite the gaps in logic and misspellings, because Google is able to offer a host of search options on the basis of previous quests using the same words. This makes me appreciate the intelligence of the company's algorithms.
Here are some recent terms — replicated here exactly as I saw them — that Google Analytics indicated people used that led to our site and gave me a chuckle:
how do huts stay warm in siberia
will 2 orgasms per week restore post menopause vagina?
how to make your garden so there isn't any gnomes
pantyhose at home jobs for moms
what did julia child's notebook look like
what does a birth certificate for a baby boomers look like
what should i feed my spine
can you marry your grandmother’s godchild
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Wishful Flights of Fantasy and Poetry
And then there are the wishful terms that express longing. Phrases like: Is flu epidemic almost over, firefighter fantasy camp and can’t stop thinking about chocolate (which, of course, gets me thinking obsessively about chocolate). Some terms seem aspirational but I can’t actually be sure — for example: will there ever be robots to take the place of parents?
Occasionally, the search words are downright poetic, a disconnected stream of consciousness that appeals to my artistic nature. I’ve even considered setting the phrases to music — such expressions as what does it feel like to be an animal and stuff I shouldn’t like and the truth of lying. Imagine if my Google song ends up being even half as captivating as these two, based on Craigslist ads and performed recently by Audra McDonald at Lincoln Center.
Cries of Desperation and Prayers
But beyond the straightforward, amusing, puzzling and lyrical queries, there are others that rock me to my core and make me well up. These phrases feel more like howling cries in the dark than searches for information, and they make me feel utterly helpless. They seem to have been written in the desperate hope that the simple act of typing words into a computer means they’ll be read, heard, felt and answered; that they’ll somehow carve a path through a universe that feels shut down, cruel and oblivious and return not just links but an experience or interaction that can right everything that’s deeply wrong and unfair.
The words all but scream out that there’s no one to turn to for help, nothing but a keyboard and a monitor. When they appear, I’m seized by a desire to reach through the computer screen and take hold of the hand of the person who has typed them, to offer comfort and assure him that someone really, truly cares.
Some of the deepest pain expressed through these search terms stems from our most critical relationships: husband and wife, parent and child, man and God. They hint at loss or impending loss — of work, love, purpose, physical vitality and peace of mind. Here are some recent examples of key terms (rendered exactly as they appeared) that make me feel this way:
guilt in not caring for ill spouse
I got a unloving mom
how to tell your estranged son your sorry for leaving him at an early age
When your spouse dies how to ask for your children to help you
reasons for adult child to divorce parents
i cannot afford to retire this year; nor qualified to work at my job
how can i remain calm while waiting on the lord
The Kind of Action That’s Needed
I’m so very glad that Next Avenue provides support and I'm proud of all the great teamwork that goes into meeting our mission. There’s no doubt that Google is also proud (even if it feels the need to boost its brand image in a movie filled with product placements). We work hard to anticipate the needs of our users and serve them to the best of our ability. And all evidence points to the fact that what we’re doing is worthwhile and valued.
But in soul-piercing cases like those I just cited, I’m acutely aware of the limits of search terms, algorithms and articles. The work of fine writers, editors and programmers is vital. But so much more needs to be done to ease the kind of despair I’m sensing and the problems that produce it.
To tackle these issues requires a different kind of public enterprise — one that operates on an intimate, personal level and on a broad policy-based one. Both require individual action. We can’t leap through a screen to help another person — maybe that’s the kind of high-tech innovation Google should be working on — but we should stop giving our undivided attention to computers, tablets and smartphones and instead attune ourselves in person to those around us.
We would all benefit from some healing, face-to-face contact.
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