Another entry in the Google Newslab data visualization project that caught my eye is the "How to Fix It" project, illustrating search queries across the world that asks "how." The project web page is here.
The centerpiece of the project is an interactive graphic showing queries related to how to fix home appliances. Here is what it looks like in France (It's always instructive to think about how they would count "France" queries. Is it queries from google.fr? queries written in French? queries from an IP address in France? A combination of the above?)
I particularly appreciate the lack of labels. When we see the pictures, we don't need to be told this is a window and that is a door. The search data concern the relative sizes of the appliances. The red dotted lines show the relative popularity of searches for the respective appliances in aggregate.
By comparison, the Russian picture looks very different:
Are the Russians more sensible? Their searches are far and away about the washing machine, which is the most complicated piece of equipment on the graphic.
At the bottom of the page, the project looks at other queries, such as those related to cooking. I find it fascinating to learn what people need help making:
I have to confess that I searched for "how to make soft boiled eggs". That led me to a lot of different webpages, mostly created for people who search for how to make a soft boiled egg. All of them contain lots of advertising, and the answer boils down to cook it for 6 minutes.
The Russia versus France comparison brings out a perplexing problem with the "Data" in this visualization. For competitive reasons, Google does not provide data on search volume. The so-called Search Index is what is being depicted. The Search Index uses the top-ranked item as the reference point (100). In the Russian diagram, the washing machine has Search Index of 100 and everything else pales in comparison.
In the France example, the window is the search item with the greatest number of searches, so it has Search Index of 100; the door has Index 96, which means it has 96% of the search volume of the window; the washing machine with Index 49 has about half the searches of the window.
The numbers cannot be interpreted as proportions. The Index of 49 does not mean that washing machines account for 49% of all France queries about fixing home appliances. That is really the meaning of popularity we want to have but we don't have. We can obtain true popularity measures by "normalizing" the Search Index: just sum up the Index Values of all the appliances and divide the Search Index by the sum of the Indices. After normalizing, the numbers can be interpreted as proportions and they add up to 100% for each country. When not normalized, the indices do not add to 100%.
Take the case in which we have five appliances, and let's say all five appliances are equally popular, comprising 20% of searches each. The five Search Indices will all be 100 because the top-ranked item is given the value of 100. Those indices add to 500!
By contrast, in the case of Russia (or a more extreme case), the top-ranked query is almost 100% of all the searches, so the sum of the indices will be only slightly larger than 100.
If you realize this, then you'd understand that it is risky to compare Search Indices across countries. The interpretation is clouded by how much of the total queries accounted for by the top query.
In our Trifecta Checkup, this is a chart that does well in the Question and Visual corners, but there is a problem with the Data.