How to Make Out, or Levitate

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Famke Backx / istockphoto

Search engines have gone way beyond a simple tool to find information. We might search for a website that we can't remember, a factoid for a report, or movie times for the local theater. More and more, we are turning to search engines for more involved queries, posing philosophical questions (why?) or at times searching for instruction (How to...?). Based on the top questions we ask our search engine, two things are glaringly obvious; 1) we as a society have a real problem with our neckties, and 2) parents of teenagers should put a 24-hour watch on their kids.

For the four weeks ending July 21, 2007, Hitwise amassed a list of over 130,000 unique "how to" queries. The number one query, holding that position consistently over the last two years is the question "How do I tie a tie?" After neckwear, it appears that our "how to" searches are executed by sexually curious teens (only a guess based on the language) with queries such as; "how to kiss," "how to have sex" and "how to make-out."

Top 10 "How to" Searches in the U.S (4 weeks ending 7/21/07)
1. How to tie a tie
2. How to have sex
3. How to kiss
4. How to lose weight
5. How to write a resume
6. How to levitate
7. How to draw
8. How to get pregnant
9. How to make out
10. How to make a video

Source: Hitwise

Since the beginning of 2007, our "how to" queries have risen over 17.5%, encompassing an impressive 2.96% of all searches in the U.S. When you look at these terms, one thing that becomes very clear is just how fractionalized our instructional dilemmas are. To make sense of the vast list of over 130,000 different searches, I decided to look at the top 1000 and group them into categories.

The most prevalent type of "how to" queries I call the general knowledge set, which includes our #1, "how to tie a tie," as well as "how to make a movie," "how to solve Rubik's cube" and a question that hasn't been on mind for a while, "how to make a Jello shot." These general knowledge questions accounted for over 57% of the top 1000 queries. The next most common how-tos were of a sexual nature. Given the graphic nature of this set, I'll leave the list to your imagination. There were 173 queries out of our total of 1000, or 17.3%.

How-to searches also reveal our aspirations. Comprising 12% of the instructional searches were those questions geared towards self improvement: how to "lose weight," "gain weight," "make money," and, for those truly in search of instant gratification, "make money fast." On the darker side, over 9.5% of the searches were for illicit or illegal activities, with marijuana use figuring high on the list ("how to grow marijuana," "grow pot," "grow weed") but also some very concerning questions: "how to commit suicide," "how to make meth," even "how to make a bomb." We apparently feel comfortable enough with our computers and the Internet to query just about anything.

Search continues to grow in importance as we sift through the mountain of information available to us. As the growth of "how to" searches increases, its clear that we are turning to search engines as sources of knowledge and insight into getting things done.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.