This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Correction: A story about the Google Trends service on page A1 of Monday's Tribune cited a wrong word as one of the top search terms of Salt Lake City users. The actual word was "boogers."
Want a peek into Utah's psyche? Click onto the Google Trends service, type in a collection of terms and brace yourself.
You are about to gaze into a digital mirror to see Zion's cyberspace ghostly double - the mundane, bizarre, ribald, homey, gluttonous, addictive and slightly perverse and surreal world of your Web-surfing friends and neighbors.
Google Trends (http://www.google.com/trends) charts the frequency of search words or phrases as entered in different nations and languages by users since 2004, and ranks cities' entries accordingly. The results can be both confirmation of, and contrary to, regional and cultural stereotypes.
Consider that predominantly Mormon, family-friendly Utah leads the nation in searches on such terms as LDS Church President "Gordon Hinckley," "Jesus," the "second coming," "scrapbooking," "baby names," "potty training," "quilting," "Barbie" and the sappy 1980 romantic movie "Somewhere in Time."
Utahns also apparently are hungry, and guilty about subsequent feasting. Salt Lake City ranked No. 1 in the nation searching for "Twinkies," "smores," "cookies," "chocolate" and "fry sauce" . . . and for "bulimia" and "anorexia."
The Beehive State also loves professional basketball, ranking No. 1 nationally for the term "NBA draft," and its sports jones extends to the nearby slopes of the Wasatch Range: Salt Lake City is No. 3 for "skiing," trailing only snow meccas such as Denver and one of its suburbs.
But explanations fail for some other search entries for which Salt Lake City computer users take top ranking: "Sponge Bob Square Pants," "sheep," "earwigs," and "boogers." Utah's capital also has a strange interest in "gerbils," second only to Cincinnati.
And there apparently are more than a few Utahns looking over their shoulders as they troll the Internet realms of the salacious and fetishism. Salt Lake City ranks No. 1 for the term "panties," loses out only to Detroit for the voyeuristic "up skirt" search, and is No. 3 - runner-up to first place Meriden, Conn., and No. 2 St. Louis - for "masturbation."
There seems little doubt Google Trends is entertaining, appealing to both sublime and crude curiosities. But in its current, 3-month-old edition, it has shortcomings - a big one being that it provides only quantitative bar charts, not specific numbers.
Most sociologists and mental health experts contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune declined interviews because of their unfamiliarity with the new search service, or concerns about its developmental, nonscientific status.
But Dan Winfield, a New York psychologist and expert in social research, finds Google Trends an effective tool for exploring the complexities of human nature.
"Mormons in Utah very likely search out information about Jesus," he says. "However, sociologists and psychologists will not be surprised folks from the same population search out . . . nude dancing [and] panties."
The moral conflict implied is not surprising, Winfield adds. "Our home computers and the Internet let us secretly look into previously forbidden caves . . . without having to worry about who might be peeking over our shoulders to censor and chastise us."
Russell Page, of Utah's Politis Communications, values Trends for non-prurient purposes, seeking it as a marketing aid. When used with other free tools offered by Google - alerts, Web site analytics, discussion groups, video archives and the global digital aerial/satellite photo application Google Earth - being able to track client interests in definable demographic classes can be invaluable.
"Google Trends shows you a history of traffic for a particular term and where geographically those searches originate," Page says. "It also lists any news stories that may have been the catalyst for additional traffic."
All that can pay off with pivotal market knowledge. For example, Page used Google Earth to help plan a client's promotional event in conjunction with a Las Vegas trade show.
"We weren't sure if it was actually close enough and if trade show attendees would be able to see the [event hotel site] from the Convention Center," he recalls. "We talked about traveling to the site to scout it out but decided against it [when] Google Earth gave us a digital flyover of the convention area at multiple angles and heights."
Technically, Trends remains a "beta" application, or work in progress. Although Google is reluctant to give away plans for its improvements to its initial May release, it does plan them.
"Google Trends is an experimental tool," company spokeswoman Ananda Martin cautions. "[It] grew out of our attempts to analyze and improve our search capability. We thought others might be interested in this . . . by-product of that review process."
Interested? Oh, yes - and using it, says Dan Cook of LANDesk Software.
The South Jordan company, which specializes in computer systems security, services and process management, has embraced Trends along with other Google tools, especially its Analytics suite.
"A company like ours is so technically oriented that we need to be targeted and know what search terms are being used out there," Cook says. "We want to know the most commonly used combinations out there, and how best we can tailor what we do in other areas in order to come up higher in the search results."
Such improvement might be as simple as including popular phrases or topics within news releases or Web page text.
Cook and other cyber-merchants agree that being able to use Trends to catch more eyes on the Internet would be totally awesome.
And yes, that would be especially true in Salt Lake City and neighboring Provo: they are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, for searching that phrase.