When genes beat cheese

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Google Trends is an amazing tool that can shed light on important historical trends relating to politics, religion, and society as a whole. It can also be used to see whether 'genes' has ever been a more popular search term than 'cheese'.

Looking across the whole corpus of Google Trends data (2004–present) it reveals — in the UK at least — that 'genes' came tantalisingly close to overtaking 'cheese' in popularity in 2007:

But wait! If we zoom in to that early part of 2007 we see that for a glorious week at the start of February that 'genes' was indeed a more popular search term than 'cheese'!

British genes for British people?

This historic victory for genetics seems to be a British phenomenon. Running the same search in other countries, or using the 'worldwide' dataset, doesn't reveal the same pattern. Here is what the genes vs cheese fight looks like in America:


I have described an important historic event but I am at a loss to explain why this trend emerged. The trend starts on January 30th 2007…I have searched Google for genes-related news around this time but nothing notable crops up. Any ideas?

How does the popularity of the UC Davis Genome Center vary with geographic location?

If I perform a Google search for the two words genome center, I see that the UC Davis Genome Center (henceforth UCDGC) is the top hit. But this is to be expected because Google has been personalizing search results for some time now, so this result is obviously tailored to me (if you didn't know, I work at the UCDGC).

If you are signed in to Google when you perform a search, the results will be heavily influenced by your search history and by what Google knows about you and your interests. Even if you sign out of Google, the search engine giant can track some information via cookies. Even if you disable cookies or use a private browsing mode, Google is still altering your search results because it knows your location (even if only approximately).

This explains why I will almost always see UCDGC as the top result when I search for 'genome center'. To get around this, I could use a search engine that doesn't track my activity, or I could use a private browsing mode in combination with a little-known feature of Google, that of changing your search location. It's possible to perform a search as if I was located in any major city or state in America.

So this allows me to see how often the UCDGC appears in the #1 position as I move around the country. I first performed a search for 'genome center' as if I was located in each state (e.g. set location to be 'Alabama', 'Alaska', 'Arkansas' etc.):

Ranking of UC Davis Genome Center among Google search results when searching for 'genome center' in each state

When you search for 'genome center', the UCDGC is the top search result in every state! One caveat to this approach is that it may not be all that meaningful to set your location to be an entire state. So I repeated the approach but this time I set my location to be the most populous city in each state:

Ranking of UC Davis Genome Center among Google search results when searching for 'genome center' in the most populous city of each state (as indicated by position of marker within each state). 

This shows that UCDGC is the #1 search result for cities in 36/50 states. The places where UCDGC is not #1 are all cities that have a notable genome center of their own (or are located close to one). A few notes relating to this:

  1. The New York Genome Center dominates results not only in New York City (NY), but also in Newark (NJ), Bridgeport (CT), and Philadephia (PA)
  2. The #1 result in Baltimore (MD) is for the Institute of Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland
  3. St. Louis (MO) sees The Genome Institute at Washington University take the top spot
  4. In the north west, a search from Seattle gives the Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease as the most popular result. But if you head to Spokane (Washington's 2nd city), then the UCDGC becomes the #1 result again
  5. In Texas, the Department of Genomic Medicine at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, pushes UCDGC to 4th place. However, move to San Antonio or Dallas and the UCDGC regains first place
  6. Chicago (IL) has the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology at #1
  7. In Minneapolis (MN) it is the University of Minnesota Genomics Center who is the top dog
  8. The home of the King (Memphis, TN) is also home to the W. Harry Feinstone Center for Genomic Research which takes the #1 position. Once again, if you move to this state's second city (Nashville), the UCDGC regains the top spot in the search results.
  9. Las Vegas, NV is home to the University of Nevada Las Vegas Genomics Core Facility. Moving to Nevada's second city (Henderson) puts UCDGC back on top.
  10. In Salt Lake City (UT) you can find the Utah Genome Depot at the University of Utah dominating the rankings.
  11. Finally, in Atlanta (GA), it is the Emory University Integrated Genomics Core which denies the UCDGC the #1 position

The UC Davis Genome Center is not only the top hit when you search for 'genome center' in various locations in the USA. If you use the Google location option to go truly global, you will see that we rank as the top search result for 'genome center' in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Dehli, Seoul, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, Cape town, Kuala Lumpur, and Sydney!

While this could all be the result of UC Davis spending millions of dollars to adopt search engine optimization strategies to unduly influence our position in the search results, I prefer to believe that it reflects our reputation for world-class genomics research and training.

The slow death of bioinformatics and the eternal popularity of shoes

Some time ago I was playing around with Google Trends (formerly Google Insights for Search) and I randomly decided to see how the search term bioinformatics has fared since 2004 (this is as far back as you can search for a trend). This is what I found:

Initially I was quite surprised by this and so I then performed a search for genomics, only to see the same sort of trend:

According to Google the Y-axis of these graphs reflect "how many searches have been done for a particular term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time" (emphasis on the word 'relative' is mine). This could just mean that the absolute number of search terms for 'bioinformatics' and 'genomics' is the same, or has even grown, but has been swamped by an increase in the frequency of all other search terms. To a lesser degree, there seems to be fewer searches occurring for many different biologically-related terms, e.g. here is the graph for the word biology.

On top of the overall declining trend, I noticed that you can clearly see a dip in the middle of each year. Possibly, this corresponds to when millions of high-school kids take their long summer vacation and are therefore not searching about anything to do with school work. You can see similar annual 'wobbles' if you also search for chemistry or physics. So does this mean that all science-related searches are declining? Well, you might expect there to be growing interest in the newer fields of biology (and bioinformatics in particular) and related technologies. This does seem to be the case. Here is the graph for the search term next generation sequencing (note, I do not advocate using this phrase):

Clearly this term has exploded in popularity as everybody moved to using many of the newer sequencing technologies as opposed to the traditional Sanger method.

So clearly, some topics are becoming more popular, and more searched for. However I still feel that the decline for the term bioinformatics might indeed represent a real decline in the whole field of bioinformatics. That is not to say that I think less bioinformatics is being done these days, or that it is less 'worthy' as a field. Rather, I think bioinformatics has moved from being a specialist field that was carried out somewhat separately from 'traditional' wet-lab research, to something which is much more integrated with many other fields of research. There are still many dedicated bioinformatics group (the lab where I work is one such group), but I think that it is increasingly common that biologists need to — and want to — undertake some bioinformatics as part of their wider research. To me, bioinformatics has become part of mainstream biological research and that means that it no longer makes sense to think of it as a separate field as such.

Anyway, regardless of whether any particular biological term is rising or falling in popularity, I think it is more interesting to see what search terms remain eternally popular. Despite changing governments, economic turmoil, and global uncertainty what is it that we search for with any degree of constancy? My first guess seemed to be a good one. So let me end by presenting the Google Insights graph for the search term shoes: