Varied as people’s interests may be online, the major search engines say the death of a public figure can be a powerful unifying force.
Google ran some numbers at our request and found that on Sunday, the day after Houston’s death, searches for “Whitney Houston” were 19 times higher than those for “Barack Obama,” “Jeremy Lin,” “Grammys 2012″ and “Lady Gaga” combined.
Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 brought 20 percent more search traffic, but Carolyn Clark, who analyzes search trends at Yahoo, says comparisons are complicated because the circumstances of each news event are different.
“With Jackson, there was doubt over his death. It was sudden and confused, and people were searching by asking questions: ‘Did Michael Jackson die?’ ‘Is Michael Jackson ill?’” Clark said. “With Houston, there was a statement. So people knew the basics, and started to look for more information.”
There are some things people always look for online, regardless of who it is who died, Clark said.
“They immediately start searching for the family, whether it’s Osama bin Laden or Michael Jackson. People will literally type in, ‘Who is Whitney Houston’s mom?” or, “Does Osama bin Laden have children?’” They may also look for information about funeral plans, often well before any have been made.
In the first hour, Yahoo said, the searches are for basic information: “Whitney Houston,” or “Whitney Houston dead.” Then people will look for memories: “Michael Jackson music” or “Whitney Houston ‘I Will Always Love You’” After Bin Laden’s death, there was soon a flood of searches for images of the American flag — perhaps people looking for that iconic picture of firefighters raising the flag at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
We’re interested to know if your searches are different, but the search engines say people increasingly phrase their searches as questions.
“In the beginning days, people would just put in a name,” Clark said. “But in the last five years, people have gotten to know that if they put in a question, like ‘Where will Whitney Houston be buried?’ they’re going to get results back.”
If there are reports that drugs were involved in someone’s death, “People start to think of themselves and their loved ones,” Clark said. “Xanax overdose symptoms” were heavily searched over the weekend — as well as the names of other public figures whose deaths may have been under similar circumstances.
But the world moves on quickly. Lindsay Maizel of Google said Whitney Houston was included in 10 of the site’s 20 “fastest rising terms” on both Saturday and Sunday, but by Monday she was included in just two.