Who Wins on the Search Engines?

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Has America gone insane? Season six for American Idol has caused us to ask some fundamental questions about the reality television phenomenon. Show judge Simon Cowell repeatedly chides contestants, "This is a singing competition." But is it really? When talented singers such as Gina Glocksen are voted off in favor of a tone-deaf Sanjaya Malakar, with his trainwreck performances, the question is whether Idol is really a singing competition, or something altogether different.

Although Sanjaya was only in the middle of the pack for last week's vote (tabulated by phone calls and text messages for the week ending Mar. 31, 2007), on the Web he was the most searched for Idol contestant of the season, garnering more than twice the volume of searches than his nearest rival (not counting the continuing quests for racy photos of Antonella Barba, who is no longer in the competition).

Theories abound as to Sanjaya's staying power on the show, from suggestions of a flood of offshore voting to the texting power of pre-pubescent girls. There is one theory that can actually be quantified by Internet data: shock-jock Howard Stern's campaigning for show-spoiler site Vote for the Worst, started in 2004 "to support voting for the entertaining contestants who the producers would hate to see win on American Idol," according to site creator Dave Della Terza, who teaches a course in reality television at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

While Votefortheworst.com is small compared to the official American Idol site, the fact that it gets nearly a fifth as many online visits gives it the strength to sway a vote. Vote for the Worst is gaining strength, with over a 50% growth since last season, which can be attributed largely to the self-proclaimed "King of All Media." Stern has been urging the listeners of his popular radio show to go on the site and vote for Sanjaya Malakar. According to Hitwise data, at times over 8% of all visits to the Vote for the Worst site originated from HowardStern.com. And this counts only direct traffic from one site to another and does not include Stern's listeners and fans who are texting and calling in their votes directly.

But what does the American public think of the unlikely Idol star? Of all of the searches for Sanjaya over the last four weeks, 41% were searching on variations of his name, "Sanjaya," or "Sanjaya Malakar," and various misspellings. At least 2.9% searched for information on Sanjaya's sister, who didn't make the cut on the show. The next most popular search topic regarded questions about Sanjaya's sexual orientation, with searches such as "Sanjaya Malakar gay," "Sanjaya gay" and "is Sanjaya gay?" What's missing are searches related to Sanjaya's musical selection or talent.

The Sanjaya phenomenon, while amusing, highlights the biggest challenge to reality shows that depend on a public vote for show outcome. It's not a singing contest, or even a popularity contest; it's become a race to see who can make the biggest spectacle. In that context, Sanjaya has the advantage.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.