Tainted Pet Food Vs. Lead-Paint Toys

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Joe Raedle / Getty

A sign explains why a store shelf is empty of pet food after it was pulled from the shelves at Petco.

There were two significant product recalls this year: tainted pet food and lead-based paint on children's toys. Two issues that concern the health of your pet and your child. Which is more important to you? Which topic would you seek more information on? It would seem that everyone would choose their child, yet our online behavior reveals a different story.

Internet search data reveals that given the two recalls, our pet's health is far more worthy of information-seeking than health issues surrounding our children. This month Mattel recalled almost 2 million toys worldwide for lead-based paint and other contamination issues. In response to the news, searches for the term "toy recall" spiked, nearly doubling the two-year average for all product recall searches.

While that would seem to be a significant increase in searches, the toy recall reaction was nothing compared to the pet food recall that occurred in March of this year, when the Food and Drug Administration found that contaminants in hundreds of brands were causing cats and dogs to fall ill. Searches for pet food-related recall issues were over seven times that same two-year average, over double the number of toy recall searches. Certainly protecting our children from the dangers of lead-based paint is more important — or, at the very least, equally as important as tainted pet food — so why the difference in searches? Perhaps media coverage of the two recalls will shed some light on the difference in attention.

Google News indicates that there were over 9,750 online news stories concerning the toy recall while the pet food recall has generated over 77,500 news stories. In fact news websites figure heavily in our search patterns. Take the search term "pet food recall." In March of this year, when news of the tainted pet food broke, the top sites visited after searching on the term weren't the manufacturers' sites with recall information; instead they were MSNBC (12.4%), Google News (11.6%) and CBSNews (9.1%). Contrast that with the Mattel toy recall, where media websites were not the most popular search destination. Searches for "toy recall" resulted in visits to Mattel.com (26.4%), The Consumer Product Safety Commission site, CPSC.gov (17.2%) then to CNN (7.0%).

Or perhaps it's our empathy for animals that explains the difference in reaction. According to Hitwise, the #1 news search term sending traffic to the New York Times for last week wasn't the plight of the trapped miners in Utah, it wasn't the Hurricane Dean threatening the Yucatan Peninsula, or the hundreds dead in the Peru earthquake; it was searches for "Michael Vick." Sure, the charges the Atlanta Falcons quarterback faces for running a dog-fighting ring and the allegations of animal cruelty are reprehensible, but amongst a field of human tragedy and a potentially catastrophic storm, search term data indicates that the perils of domesticated animals trump all.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.