2008 Through Google’s Eyes

Scanning around the blogosphere and the popularity rankings on sites like YouTube and Twitter is a great way to take the pulse of the times. People vote in herds to tell us matters most to them, what they like, what they hate.

It’s called the wisdom of the crowds, and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has applied it on a grand scale to sum up the year of 2008 by compiling the most popular queries on its search engine.

And with 63 percent of the search market, Google has a bird’s-eye view of the digital zeitgeist.

Among U.S. searchers, the query that saw the biggest lift on Google.com over last year was, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Obama.”

But in a year when U.S. politics took center stage, the victorious president-elect by no means had a lock on the public interest.

Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor who co-anchored the Republican ticket, was the fastest rising query among international searchers. By that same measure, Palin checked in at No. 7 among U.S. searchers, but ranked at the top in queries on Google News and Google Images.

The Web-wide fascination with Palin is all the more remarkable given that she only entered the main stage in the second half of the year, touching off a digital vetting process that was by many measures cruel and unusual.

Google also ranked the top campaign buzzwords, essentially a chronicle of the headlines that, for a brief while, dominated the news cycle through the jots and turns of a very political year.

At the top of the list — what else! — “Joe the Plumber.” Three of Obama’s politically dangerous associates — Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers and Rashid Khalidi — checked in at Nos. 2, 4 and 9, respectively.

Not to be outdone, buzzwords tagged to Palin — “maverick,” “lipstick pig,” and “hockey mom” — respectively took the Nos. 3, 6 and 10 positions.

But there was more to 2008 than just politics. Social media and shiny gadgets held a prominent position in the conversation, too. As the fastest rising U.S. queries on Google.com, Facebook ranked No. 2, iPhone No. 4 and YouTube No. 5.

Of course, no year-in-review is complete without a roundup of the noteworthy personalities who passed away. In 2008, Heath Ledger was tops in searches for celebrity obituaries, followed by Bernie Mac, Tim Russert, Isaac Hayes and George Carlin.

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