The year is not over yet, but they and several smaller competitors have now released their lists of the top searches of the year, and they reflect the times. People looked up dead celebrities, comfort food, and -- more than ever -- each other.
Here's Google's list of "fastest-rising" searches globally:
Sanalika (a Turkish social-networking site)
"New Moon" (the movie exploded onto the scene in November)
Lady Gaga -- people searched as much for pictures and videos of the singer as they did for facts or song lyrics
Dantri.com.vn (a Vietnamese portal).
Torpedo Gratis (a Brazilian text-messaging site).
Google puts out this list (and several variations) annually -- partly, it admits, in a spirit of self-promotion, but also to offer us an interesting picture of what was on our collective minds.
"It gives us a really good sense of what is the world thinking about because what they're thinking about is what they search for," said Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products.
Top 10 Web Searches of 2009
Yahoo's list, described as "overall searches" rather than newcomers, was similar... but different. Yahoo said it reflected "America's need to escape and to cope" in tough times.
"Twilight" (the broader name for the saga that includes "New Moon").
WWE (as in World Wrestling Entertainment)
Megan Fox, the actress of "Transformers" fame
Britney Spears -- bumped from No. 1 after four straight years, according to Yahoo
"American Idol" (Search engine executives said individual contestants and winners often rank highly.)
What's missing from these lists? For starters, Sarah Palin, who led Google's list in 2008. John McCain went back to being a senator. And "Obama," said Google, was widely searched, but the president created such a wave of curiosity in 2008 that this year he ranked high on the list of "fastest falling" searches.
Google said it teased out other trends from its data -- for instance, what people eat when they're watching their wallets as much as their waistlines.
"Every year we see a big spike for recipes around Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Mayer, but this year the searches were for comfort foods -- chili, meatloaf, pancakes, banana bread."
And there is one last point to be made: While the search engines report the most common searches, they are really a very small part of a very wide range of what people seek on the Web. Google said that every day more than a quarter of the searches people make are entirely new to them -- things that people have never looked up before.