Google flu trends: Web searches as sensors

April 26th, 2009

Google has had a special “flu trends” site up for many months that provides “up-to-date estimates of flu activity in the United States based on aggregated search queries.”

They have found that how many people search for flu-related topics is a leading indicator for reports on how many people actually have flu symptoms. They believe that this metric “may indicate flu activity up to two weeks ahead of traditional flu surveillance systems”. Click on the flash video below to see the relationship between the flu searches and flu symptoms.

So, is Google magic? The explanation for why changes in in the level of flu searches precedes changes in the level of flu symptoms is more mundane.

“So why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries? It turns out that traditional flu surveillance systems take 1-2 weeks to collect and release surveillance data, but Google search queries can be automatically counted very quickly. By making our flu estimates available each day, Google Flu Trends may provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza.”

You can get the details in a recent article in nature:

J. Ginsberg, M. Mohebbi, R. Patel, L. Brammer, M. Smolinski and L. Brilliant, Detecting influenza epidemics using search engine query data, Nature 457, 1012-1014 (19 February 2009).

Of course, such leading indicators may not correlate well if there is a “black swan” flu epidemic or even if there is an unfounded fear of one. Sometimes the crowds are wise, but often not. Remember when we all thought technology stocks real estate was a good thing to invest in?

The Google site also allows you to look at the data by state as well. Click on the image below to try it out.

When will video dominate text on the Web?

January 18th, 2009

Information on the Web comes in many forms, including text, images, services, data, games, and video. I’ve always considered text to be the essential type, possibly because it was the first, but also because so much of our Web experience has been shaped by search engines, which still operate mostly on text. But just as television and film dominate books and other forms of text in popular culture, maybe video-oriented modalities will become the preferred form of Web content.

Today’s New York Times has an article, At First, Funny Videos. Now, a Reference Tool, about how many search for information on YouTube first and turn to text search engines only when their YouTube results are inadequate.

“FACED with writing a school report on an Australian animal, Tyler Kennedy began where many students begin these days: by searching the Internet. But Tyler didn’t use Google or Yahoo. He searched for information about the platypus on YouTube.

“I found some videos that gave me pretty good information about how it mates, how it survives, what it eats,” Tyler said. Similarly, when Tyler gets stuck on one of his favorite games on the Wii, he searches YouTube for tips on how to move forward. And when he wants to explore the ins and outs of collecting Bakugan Battle Brawlers cards, which are linked to a Japanese anime television series, he goes to YouTube again.

While he favors YouTube for searches, he said he also turns to Google from time to time. “When they don’t have really good results on YouTube, then I use Google,” said Tyler, who is 9 and lives in Alameda. Calif.

The article reports that the number of YouTube searches now recently exceeded those on Yahoo, which had been number two.

“In November, Americans conducted nearly 2.8 billion searches on YouTube, about 200 million more than on Yahoo, according to comScore.”

You can see this trend in comScore’s December 2008 Search Engine Rankings report.

It’s hard to say where this is going. Video is great for some kinds of information (e.g, demonstrations, events) and less good for others (e.g., recipes, careful arguments). We can easily link information in text to related information, but can’t (yet) for videos. We can more easily write programs to process text and even extract semantic information from it.

But I have a feeling that nine year old Tyler Kennedy is a sign of things to come.

Can you survive 24 hour without Google?

September 7th, 2008

Rob Dubbin, a writer for “The Colbert Report”, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, Just Let Me Check One Last Thing…, on his attempt to last 24 hours without using any of Google’s services. The test was undertaken on the tenth anniversary of Google’s founding. It did not go well.

“I wish Google didn’t make me think of tentacles. It never did before I tried avoiding it for 24 hours — a doomed exercise that began as a challenge and morphed into a horror show.

This was supposed to be a birthday present to the Internet’s reigning brand — admittedly, an odd sort of gift for a company that so thrives on participation. Ten years ago today, on Sept. 7, 1998, Google was officially incorporated, beginning its historical march to ubiquity from a Silicon Valley garage. What better way to celebrate Google’s dominance — search, e-mail, chat, maps, news, calendars, Mars– than to abstain from its services entirely? ”

Fonolo is google for phone menus

April 30th, 2008

Remember when finding information on the Web was done by navigation using Gopher or Yahoo’s directory? I worked and we thought it was pretty good, at least until the search engines came along. Then we realized that search was much better than navigation for most tasks, especially as the size of the Web grew.

Recall how we get information from a big organization by phone today — we call customer service and navigate a confusing phone menu over the phone and after 10 minutes, end up being told to dial a different department. Dealing with such IVR (Interactive voice response) systems is part of the cost of living in our modern society. But maybe w can do better…

Fonolo offers a service that uses a search engine on their site to find the right spot on a company’s phone menu and connect you to it by a callback to your phone. You can even bookmark the point on the phone menu.

How do they do this? Here’s an explanation from IVR search: a ‘Google’ for phone menus?, a post on Telco2.0:

“And Fonolo wrote a web spider that visits large companies’ public phone numbers, and iterates through all the options on all the IVR menus from all the numbers, logging everything it finds. Then it’s just a matter of plotting it all on a directed graph, and making the whole thing searchable and available on the Web. And then the bit we like. You click on the bit you want to get through to, and their system uses the map to dial and navigate the IVRs for you, thus “deep dialing” the user directly to the point in the IVR they need. Every time someone dials through Fonolo, they use the interaction to re-validate that path through the IVR. The search terms that users submit tell them which companies they need to go spider.”

Fonolo is in a private beta mode, but you can sign up to be added to it on thei web site. You can see a video presentation of the idea and some ppt slides

Is China redirecting access from search engines to Baidu?

October 18th, 2007

Techcrunch writes in Cyberwar: China Declares War On Western Search Sites that someone in China is redirecting search engine access to Baidu, China’s top search engine.

“Further to our earlier story on visitors to Google Blogsearch being redirected to Baidu in China, new reports have surfaced that would indicate that China has unilaterally blocked all three major search engines in China and is redirecting all requests to Baidu. Digital Marketing Blog posts that all requests to and sub-sites are being redirected to Baidu. Google Blogscoped forums indicate that is also being re-directed to Baidu, as well as confirming the Yahoo story and our earlier Google post. The re-direct would also appear to apply to” (link)

Can any ebiquity readers in china confirm this? Is so, please leave a comment.