What Are You Searching For?


What Are You Searching For?

March 19, 2022

An experiment in which I pester 5 of my friends to share with me their 15 latest search queries.

About this time one year ago, I became intensely interested in understanding how real people were seeking out information online. I wanted to know the tools they were using, the frequency of their discovery journeys, and most of all, what exactly they were searching for on the web. It’s funny how our searches feel so intimate, and the way that the queries we present to our ecosystem of ever-present search engines can tell stories we sometimes wouldn’t even tell our closest friends. Peeling back the layer behind the questions we pose leads to fascinating answers we may not even have been seeking in the first place — answers to who we are, what we’re searching for, and whether or not our quests through these searches themselves could be vastly improved.

I sat down with my sister on a Tuesday in June and made her tell me all the most recent things she had searched up. She’s a mid-twenties MD PhD student living in upper Manhattan, and her searches largely reflect her life — organized, fastidious, direct. There were plenty of obscure medical terms in there, but outside of that, her latest 15 queries were...

nyc upper east side vet (short term, task focused)

unreal cast (short term, interest focused)

spirited away (long term, interest focused)

my year of rest and relaxation (long term, interest focused)

san ysidro ranch (short term, interest focused)

under eye mask (short term, task focused)

types of tabby cats (long term, interest focused)

cha cha matcha (short term, interest focused)

good american swim (short term, task focused)

k town sauna (short term, task focused)

warby parker (short term, task focused)

bird’s nest (short term, interest focused)

cascatelli (short term, interest focused)

new yorker (short term, interest focused)

embroidered bucket hat (short term, interest focused)

Interestingly enough, when I went through each query and organized it by type, much of her searches were short term focused (especially for the type of girl to plan her life eight years out in advance). She searched for things that intrigued her in the moment, little topics that piqued her interest and left her wanting to know more. It reflected many of the simple facts of her life (residing in NYC, a strong interest in medicine, a growing excitement about getting a cat) but also gave a peek into more of the specifics (a book she’s considering reading, a film she’s considering watching, a vacation she’s considering taking). In short, it gave me a peek into the details of her life without having to ask, and presented me with an understanding of the answers she was seeking from a search box on the internet.

Next, I asked a friend of mine about her searches. She’s another academic that recently moved to LA, studying physics and largely spending her time on various comedic corners of the internet. Her recent searches were...

the city puebla (long term, interest focused)

game changer musical (short term, interest focused)

off book music podcast (short term, interest focused)

how to hem pants with a sewing machine (short term, task focused)

snl (short term, task focused)

irish sheep farmer (short term, interest focused)

tom thomson algonquin park (short term, interest focused)

huntington gardens (short term, task focused)

you know what that is growth gif (short term, interest focused)

kelvin to celsius  (short term, task focused)

physics greenhouse effect (short term, task focused)

hand sanitizer (short term, task focused)

freddy krueger  (short term, interest focused)

massachusetts covid (short term, interest focused)

marzipan (short term, interest focused) Omitting the obscure physics terms, she spent much of her time exploring various interests and curiosities and told me she leaned on finding videos as her primary source of satiating her queries. Both a mix of personal and generic terms defined her search history, and the motivations behind each were varied (though she claims mostly research-based).

I chatted with a close friend of mine next — another girl that works in tech in SF and is increasingly interested in nurturing her online shopping obsession, finding out new things to explore in the Bay Area, and also delving into her various pop culture questions. bart schedule (short term, task focused)

velvet coat (short term, task focused)

beauty supply near me (short term, task focused)

population of japanese in sf (short term, interest focused)

marafuku best ramen (short term, task focused)

condo vs apartment (long term, interest focused)

alphabet mafia (short term, interest focused)

james dean (short term, interest focused)

ibuprofen after hangover (short term, task focused)

lexical similarity (short term, interest focused)

what happened to passion pit (short term, interest focused)

california wildflowers (short term, interest focused)

what fast food places have fake meat (short term, interest focused)

russell wilson siblings  (short term, interest focused)

the batman (short term, interest focused)

beyoncé toe (short term, interest focused)

Interestingly enough, she shared that she would ask 40% of her searches to her friends (beyond search engines), but the searches she wouldn’t ask her friends are deeply personal and perhaps embarrassing. That’s the value she sees in search engines — the anonymity and the ability to ask questions without judgment.

When I asked my next friend to share his search queries with me, he gladly sent over a list of his most recent searches and was more than happy to share the reasoning behind each request. In his own words, he shared that these searches were mostly in the moment queries for terms, people or places that piqued his curiosity throughout the day, and mostly done on mobile. He told me that he kept most of his work-related queries to his desktop. Beyond that, the queries were largely reactionary after consuming some sort of media, or in the middle or after a conversation.

stumbleupon (short term, interest focused)

verve los angeles (short term, task focused)

icarly reunion paramount (short term, interest focused)

mschf (short term, interest focused)

california coronavirus stats (short term, interest focused)

pearl harbor aviation museum (long term, task focused)

aesthetic seat covers (short term, interest focused)

urth caffe (short term, task focused)

creator economy (long term, interest focused)

san jose to berlin (long term, task focused)

flight to croatia (long term, task focused)

gramercy park (short term, interest focused)

how to buy an hermes bag (short term, interest focused)

davenport pier beach (short term, task focused)

last week tonight (long term, interest focused)

He rarely shares what he searches or vocalizes them because it’s often for his own curiosity with little tangible value. Sometimes these searches can lead to rabbit holes where a term is a gateway for learning more about adjacent topics, depending on what it is that he’s learning.

Finally, a good friend from college I haven’t caught up with in a while let me know what he was looking up online. With a mix of climate related queries and some phrases regarding Waikiki, it was safe to assume he was furthering his interest around environmental science while also planning an escape to Hawaii.

Bovine methane biotech (long term, interest focused)

Josh silverman s3 innovations (long term, interest focused)

What does it mean to call someone green (short term, task focused)

Define green (short term, task focused)

Waikiki lap pools (short term, interest focused)

Sheraton Waikiki lap pool (short term, interest focused)

Abhinav Sharma (short term, interest focused)

Tahini has dairy (short term, task focused)

Cava (short term, task focused)

Honolulu (long term, interest focused)

Citation machine (short term, task focused)

Mla format New York Times article (short term, task focused)

Theory of one price (short term, interest focused)

Wikipedia perfect information (short term, interest focused)

Matplotlib horizontal bar chart (short term, task focused)

Without the added personal context, I was surprised to feel as though I got an immediate understanding of his current mental state — this snapshot into what information he had been seeking in the last few days provided a quick look into his psyche, and somehow didn’t leave me with any additional urge to pry more.

Overall, each query was so uniquely different from one another, and it was fascinating to track the diversity of queries across every person. Although I felt like I knew each one of my friends very well, peering behind the curtain and taking a closer look at their search histories let me feel more deeply connected to their digital selves, and allowed me to gain a closer understanding of not just who they are but what questions were permeating their consciousness.

I was interested to see that short term queries dominated the list, and there were twice as many interest related queries over task related queries. This led me to assume that much of our usage of search engines is for our personal discovery — to seek new answers, satiate our curiosities, and push our present understandings into a more evolved, nuanced state.

Personally, I feel like this was just the beginning. Beyond my friends, I want to know what your 15 most recent search queries are and if anything surprised you about your list. Care to share? Email them to me (anonymously is okay!) at [email protected].