I doubt that any of us have ever considered any of our past vice-presidential candidates a sex symbol. But if recent Internet searches are any measure of the average American's current interest in politics, that may be changing.
On the Richter scale of Internet search energy, Republican presidential candidate John McCain's announcement on Friday that he had chosen Sarah Palin, the current governor of Alaska, as his running mate measured a magnitude 10. If you compare the number of searches for "John McCain," "Barack Obama" or "Joe Biden" with those for "Sarah Palin," there's no contest. In just two days, the number of U.S. Internet searches for "Sarah Palin" reached a peak greater than any other political personality in the past three years. In the week ending Aug. 30, 2008, searches for Governor Palin were almost four times as popular as Obama searches, eight times as popular as McCain searches and over 10 times more popular than searches for Biden.
So, what exactly are Palin searchers seeking?
Of the 1,323 unique search queries containing "Sarah Palin" over the past four weeks, there were many that you'd normally expect to see regarding a newly named vice-presidential candidate: queries about Palin's biography, for example, her voting record and her stance on abortion. The No. 1 search was simply "Sarah Palin." The next nine most popular search terms that appeared in conjunction with "Sarah Palin" were:
And if you look more carefully at the 1,300 searches Hitwise tracked, one of the most commonly entered search topics surrounding Palin was "hot photos." (Hitwise search data updates weekly on Mondays, so information on searches related to the news of Palin's pregnant teen daughter, Bristol, were not yet available.) Other queries common to the American public: "Sarah Palin Bikini Photos," "Sarah Palin Naked," "Sarah Palin Nude." People also searched frequently for Palin's physical stats particularly her age and height as they did with the other candidates and running mates. Internet searchers also appear to be fascinated by and confused about her religious orientation, with several queries such as "Sarah Palin Religious Beliefs," "Sarah Palin Christian," "Sarah Palin Catholic," "Sarah Palin Mormon" and "Sarah Palin Jewish."
Examining which of their search results Internet users click on provides additional clues on searchers' intent. Of those searching for information on the Republican Veep candidate, 28.5% continued on to reference websites such as Wikipedia, indicating that a large portion of searchers were either interested in finding out general information or simply answering last weekend's common question: Who is Sarah Palin?
Given that the most popular searches surrounding the candidates include queries about Meghan McCain's lunch with Heidi Montag, Web videos of Obama Girl and slogans like "Alaska: Coldest State, Hottest Governor," it's getting harder and harder to distinguish news about the 2008 presidential race from the latest chatter from celebrity gossip magazines.
Bill Tancer is general manager of research at Hitwise, and author of Click: What Millions do Online and Why it Matters.