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Google Zeitgeist 2012 Lists the Most Popular Trends


Zeitgeist is a sociology term borrowed from German that means "spirit of the times." Google Zeitgeist is a compilation of search and other Google product trends from the year. It works as an amazing snapshot of pop culture trends and historical events for the year. What did Google say about 2012? We'll get to that, but first let's clarify a few things.

Google Zeitgeist doesn't measure the full volume of search trends. Google says that those don't change much over time. However, the trends change from week to week, month to month, and year to year. Terms that did not get a lot of traffic suddenly rose in the ranks as pop stars became famous and newsworthy events occur. Now, Google doesn't reveal the actual math they use, so we have to take the company's word for it. There's also the complication of people searching for the same thing but using different terms. "Kate Middleton," "Catherine Middleton," and the "Duchess of Cambridge" are the same person. Google has figured out a lot of the semantic difficulties over the years. This is the company that came up with a way to figure out where flu outbreaks were occurring by finding spikes in search trends related to flu symptoms. I think they've got this one. 

So here are the worldwide trends of 2012:

  1. Whitney Houston
  2. Gangnam Style
  3. Hurricane Sandy
  4. iPad 3
  5. Diablo 3
  6. Kate Middleton
  7. Olympics 2012
  8. Amanda Todd
  9. Michael Clarke Duncan
  10. BBB12

Whitney Houston was a famous pop singer who died after a long downward spiral with addiction.

Gangnam Style is a song by K-pop singer PSY that became an unexpected international sensation. The crazy dance in the video involves pretending to be riding a horse, and the video and dance sparked countless parody videos and songs.

Hurricane Sandy was a devastating storm that struck the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and left large areas of New York without power or transportation services.

The iPad 3 wasn't even the latest release this year. Apple released an upgraded iPad (although they didn't refer to it as the iPad 4 - everyone else did) and a smaller iPad mini. Neither of those apparently made the trend list.

Diablo 3 is a popular game from Blizzard Entertainment. The game had record-breaking pre-sales, which, of course leads to disappointed fans when the game turns out to not be the best game ever invented. Updates were offered in patches, which probably lead to a lot of searching, and one highly anticipated feature (team deathmatch) has been scrapped for the time being.

Kate Middleton, or Catherine Middleton,  is the wife of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and eldest son of Prince Charles, the son of Queen Elizabeth of England. Kat Middleton announced that she was expecting a baby this year, which would be the Queen of England's first great grandchild. 

The 2012 Olympics were obviously exciting enough to garner a lot of world wide attention.

Amanda Todd was a Canadian teenager who committed suicide after complaining that she was bullied. She created a video using flashcards instead of her voice to explain her experiences, and the video went viral after her death and provoked a larger discussion about cyber bullying.

Michael Clarke Duncan was a famous actor who was probably best known for his role in The Green Mile. He died following complications from a heart attack.

BBB12 refers to Big Brother Brazil 12,  which aired in early 2012.

Compare and contrast these worldwide trends with those of the United States by itself:

  1. Whitney Houston
  2. Hurricane Sandy
  3. Election 2012
  4. Hunger Games
  5. Jeremy Lin
  6. Olympics 2012
  7. Amanda Todd
  8. Gangnam Style
  9. Michael Clarke Duncan
  10. KONY 2012

It's a pretty similar list, reflecting just how large the search volume is in the United States. Americans seemed less interested in Kate Middleton, Big Brother Brazil, and the iPad 3. Instead they were interested in basketball player Jeremy Lin, the hit movie Hunger Games, and KONY 2012, a short film intended to increase awareness of the accused Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony. There was also considerable interest in the presidential election of 2012.

Read all of the worldwide search trends in multiple categories here.


This is a more interesting search category.  Worldwide, the most searched for images were:

  1. One Direction
  2. Selena Gomez
  3. iPhone 5
  4. Megan Fox
  5. Rihanna
  6. Justin Bieber
  7. Harry Styles
  8. Minecraft
  9. Nicki Minaj
  10. Katy Perry

Note that most of these images are of pop groups and celebrities. Notable exceptions being the iPhone 5 and Minecraft, a popular video game.  The US version of the same list shows:

  1. One Direction
  2. Funny Pictures
  3. Nicki Minaj
  4. Justin Bieber
  5. Love
  6. Flowers
  7. Selena Gomez
  8. Heart
  9. Money
  10. iPhone 5

I think this is a particularly interesting list, since Americans seemed to be less interested in searching for celebrities and more interested in things like love, flowers, funny pictures, and money. Money? I did a Google Image search of this term myself, and it was just as you'd think. Images of cold, hard cash. My guess is that a significant number of image searches are used as fodder for sarcastic picture answers on social networks and Tumblr. I love the Internet.


Yes, athlete searches warrant a separate category this year. Since it was an Olympic year, the category wsa warranted. The worldwide search trends were once again dominated by American athletes.

  1. Jeremy Lin
  2. Michael Phelps
  3. Peyton Manning
  4. McKayla Maroney
  5. Junior Seau
  6. Sarah Burke
  7. Tom Daley
  8. Lance Armstrong
  9. Mario Balotelli
  10. Ryan Lochte

 McKayla Maroney was the American gymnast who won the silver medal in London for her vault performance. She was displeased with herself for falling during her final vault and was caught on camera giving a look that turned into the meme of, "McKayla is not impressed." Her photo was collaged onto different situations to show how "unimpressed" she could be. The finale of the trend probably happened at the White House when McKayla and President Obama posed together with the famous sideways "not impressed" look.

Michael Phelps made the list for becoming the most medal winning athlete in history, while Lance Armstrong made the list by shamefully surrendering his Tour de France titles after accusations that he was the center of a massive doping scandal.

The US list of athletes:

  1. Jeremy Lin
  2. Peyton Manning
  3. Michael Phelps
  4. Ryan Lochte
  5. Tim Tebow
  6. McKayla Maroney
  7. Gabby Douglas
  8. LoLo Jones
  9. Dwight Howard
  10. Sarah Burke

Notice how Lance Armstrong isn't on this list? Remember, the list isn't just search volume. It's changes in patterns and rising stars. Lance Armstrong was probably always a popular search term in the US, where he'd been a high profile figure for years. Although the doping controversy and resignation were newsworthy events, they likely didn't cause the same level of spike in search trends that they did in the rest of the world.


This category includes newsworthy events that were searched for worldwide. The list is:

  1. Hurricane Sandy
  2. Kate Middleton Pictures Released
  3. Olympics 2012
  4. SOPA Debate
  5. Costa Concordia crash
  6. Presidential Debate
  7. Stratosphere Jump
  8. Penn State Scandal
  9. Trayvon Martin shooting
  10. Pussy Riots

Hurricane Sandy dominates the list, along with many other American news events. "Pussy Riots" refers to the Russian punk band "Pussy Riot" that was jailed under the charge of "hooliganism" for filming a music video with political lyrics inside a Russian Orthodox church without permission. "SOPA Debate" refers to the massive controversy over a bill designed to combat online piracy. Opponents felt that it was a massive overreach that interfered with freedom and free access to online services. The bill failed due in part to a lot of Internet pressure. Sites like Wikipedia went dark for a day out of protest.

The US version of this list is:

  1. Hurricane Sandy
  2. Presidential Election
  3. Super Bowl
  4. Olympics
  5. UEFA Euro 2012
  6. KONY Movement
  7. SOPA Protest
  8. Aurora Shooting
  9. Trayvon Martin Case
  10. Hurricane Isaac

If you were wondering why the tragic massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut didn't make the list, it was because the Google Zeitgeist list was published two days before the shooting. 


The most searched for people in 2012 worldwide were:

  1. Whitney Houston
  2. Kate Middleton
  3. Amanda Todd
  4. Michael Clarke Duncan
  5. One Direction
  6. Felix Baumgartner
  7. Jeremy Lin
  8. Morgan Freeman
  9. Joseph Kony
  10. Donna Summer

If this list looks pretty similar to the overally search trends, there's good reason. You may also notice that they're in a different order in some cases. That's due to the quirks of the way Google compiles these lists. The US list:

  1. Whitney Houston
  2. Jeremy Lin
  3. Amanda Todd
  4. Michael Clark Duncan
  5. Kate Middleton
  6. One Direction
  7. Morgan Freeman
  8. Peyton Manning
  9. Joe Paterno
  10. Paul Ryan

Again, it's a very similar list. Notice that Kate Middleton does make the list of people searches, just not the American list of overall searches.

Feature Films

The top searched for feature films in the world for 2012 were:

  1. The Hunger Games
  2. Skyfall
  3. Prometheus
  4. The Avengers
  5. Magic Mike
  6. John Carter
  7. Ek Tha Tiger
  8. Paranormal Activity 4
  9. Taken 2
  10. Dark Shadows

Keep in mind that this isn't a measure of ticket sales or profits, but of Internet buzz. Sometimes that buzz may also be for a very lousy movie in order to complain about how awful it was. For the United States alone, the trends were:

  1. The Hunger Games
  2. Prometheus
  3. The Avengers
  4. Magic Mike
  5. The Dark Knight Rises
  6. Ted
  7. 21 Jump Street
  8. The Vow
  9. Twilight
  10. Paranormal Activity 4

TV Shows

The worldwide trending TV shows for 2012 were:

  1. BBB12
  2. Avenida Brasil
  3. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
  4. The Voice
  5. American Idol
  6. Game of Thrones
  7. Homeland
  8. Revenge
  9. Cheias de Charme
  10. Carrossel

Notice the Big Brother Brazil topping the list worldwide and, sigh, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is high on that list as well. Again, this is not a measure of popularity or network ratings. This is a measure of changes in search behavior, trending interest. If someone says, "What is Honey Boo Boo?" and searches to find the answer, they've contributed to the Internet buzz even if they run away in horror after reading a synopses.

The US version of this list:

  1. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
  2. The Voice
  3. American Idol
  4. Big Brother 14
  5. X Factor
  6. 666 Park Avenue
  7. Alcatraz TV Show
  8. Dance Moms
  9. The New Normal
  10. Switched At Birth

Yes, Honey Boo Boo made that one, too.

Performing Artists 

For the world, the trending artists were:

  1. Whitney Houston
  2. Michael Clarke Duncan
  3. One Direction
  4. Donna Summer
  5. Lana Del Rey
  6. Carolina Dieckmann
  7. Dirk Bach
  8. Carly Rae Jepsen
  9. Michel Telo
  10. LMFAO

I'm actually a bit surprised that K-pop star PSY didn't make this list, but my guess is that people were more interested in his song, Gangnam Style, than they were in the artist that performed it.

There is no separate listing for US trends, but here are the trending songs for the US:

  1. Boyfriend, Justin Bieber
  2. Gangnam Style, PSY
  3. Call Me Maybe, Carly Rae Jepsen
  4. Somebody that I Used to Know, Gotye
  5. Some Nights, Fun.
  6. Die Young, Ke$ha
  7. Wide Awake, Katy Perry
  8. As Long As You Love Me, Justin Bieber
  9. Pop That, French Montana
  10. Mercy, Kanye West

And the most searched for American lyrics were:

  1. Gangnam Style Lyrics
  2. Mercy Lyrics
  3. Payphone Lyrics
  4. Some Nights Lyrics
  5. Super Bass Lyrics
  6. The Motto Lyrics
  7. Rack City Lyrics
  8. Wide Awake Lyrics
  9. Titanium Lyrics
  10. Boyfriend Lyrics

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