Celebrities Wanted, Dead or Alive

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Win McNamee / Getty

Anna Nicole Smith

Dead or alive? It's a question that has been fodder for morning radio contests and celebrity death pools, and has even given rise to a number of websites that allow you to ascertain whether your favorite star or minor celebrity has kicked the bucket or is simply living out the rest of his or her life in obscurity. Apart from our fascination with the morbid, Internet searches on dead vs. living celebrities give us insight into the half-life of fame, as well as what drives the popularity of stars who are no longer with us.

Browsing through the top 25,000 most popular celebrity searches, the living significantly outnumber the dead in popularity. Oprah continues to be the most searched for celebrity (although those searches may also be for the Oprah brand; the woman and her empire are at times indistinguishable) over the last several years. There have been brief interruptions by Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Antonella Barba. But in the last two years, only one celebrity death has been able to rival the Oprah machine, if only for one week, at the beginning of February 2007.

During the days after Anna Nicole Smith's death on Feb. 8, searches for the departed buxom blonde outnumbered Oprah searches 25 to 1, making Anna Nicole the most searched for celebrity over the last two years. While a celebrity's death is certainly a trigger for an Internet search surge, there are other factors that give online life to the departed.

Death anniversaries are the most likely reason why former celebrities increase in search volume, especially anniversaries that are multiples of five. The most popular anniversary-related death-search in the last two years was on Dec. 8, 2005, the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death. His online popularity surged, vaulting him into the top 10 list of most searched celebrities during that week.

The two celebrities with the longest online half-life are Marilyn Monroe (47th most popular celebrity search) followed by Elvis Presley (in position #101). However, searches for Marilyn increased to double their normal level on the first week of February 2007, the same week as Anna Nicole's death. Personally I can only see the platinum blonde connection between the two, but apparently U.S. Internet users see more of a connection between Marilyn and Anna Nicole. I wonder if Marilyn would have her own reality television show if she were alive today?

One of the interesting facets of celebrity death-watchers is their unique demographic. Who searches for dead celebrities? The answer might surprise you. By examining the visitors to popular dead celebrity sight deadoraliveinfo.com we find that visitors to the site skew to male (71.2%), over 55 years of age (57.7%), living in suburbia (31.4%). Perhaps old guys in the burbs have more time to contemplate mortality.

Proving the power of an Oprah association, one recently departed celebrity has surpassed searches for living celebrities like Kate Beckinsale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Ultimate Fighting Champion star Chuck "the Iceman" Liddell. Its Gracie, Oprah's recently deceased golden lab. May she rest in peace.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.