Google: My Favorite Company

 

By Chloe Lutts

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The Seasonality of Culture

Governments and Search Engines

My Favorite Company

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On the bookshelf next to my desk, nestled between Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and a dog-eared copy of the U.S. Constitution, there’s a 1983 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary that I bought for $1 at a library booksale. I like having it, but I hardly ever use it.

Instead, I frequently visit www.m-w.com, the website of Merriam-Webster, where I can find the spelling, meaning and origin of any word in a fraction of the time it would take me to crack open the dictionary.

Plus, the website tends to teach me more than I went there to learn. The site has top 10 lists of interesting words (top 10 words from the 1980s, say, or words for odd phobias) and mini-articles about words of note. One regular series, Word Well Used, features real-life appearances of interesting words. Recently it commended The New Yorker for the apt use of “coup de grâce” in an article about Blockbuster’s decline. (I also recently learned that the word “blockbuster” originally applied not to hit movies, but to WWII-era bombs that could flatten entire city blocks.)

Another regular feature is mini-articles about words seeing a spike in lookups on the site. Recently, news coverage of the Chilean mine rescue saw “ebullient” float to the top of the list, and a week earlier, on October 8, the Nobel prize committee inspired a wave of interest in the word “dissident.” This summer, Sarah Palin’s coinage of the neologism “refudiate” in a grammatical nightmare of a tweet caused a spike in lookups of both “refute” and “repudiate” (and probably refudiate too, but Merriam-Webster probably doesn’t track lookups of non-words.)

Usually, the featured words are related to the news of the day. However, I recently noticed “culture” on the list. The reasons behind culture’s spike were a little more opaque, but Merriam-Webster had this to say:

“When: Lookups on Merriam-Webster.com started spiking after Labor Day. (This has become an annual phenomenon.)

“Why: Students arriving at college were greeted, as usual, with plenty of culture.
For example, a few course titles in the Ohio State catalogue: ‘Theorizing Culture,’ ‘Transnationalism and Culture in the Americas,’ ‘Conceptual Process for Visual Culture as Curricula.’ In college classrooms, it seems, the word is everywhere. But what does it mean? Merriam-Webster's definition of culture includes a couple of senses relevant to the academic use:

“the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

“the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

“Beyond that, exploring the range of this word is partly what student life is about. Culture comes from Latin: to cultivate land.”

Intrigued by Merriam-Webster’s offhand comment that this an annual phenomenon, I popped “culture” into Google Trends, which tracks the frequency of Google searches for any given search term. This is what I got:

Chart 1

Not only do Google searches for culture spike at the beginning of the school year, as Merriam-Webster noted, they remain high whenever school is in session, dropping off noticeably every summer and winter break. Looking even more closely, it’s clear from a monthly chart of culture’s prominence that searches decline every weekend. Here are searches from this September:

Chart 2

The vertical lines indicate weeks; September 5, 12 and 19 are all Sundays. You can almost see the students coming home from their parties and getting back to the books… or the Googling.

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Tracking social search patterns can certainly be amusing and sometimes enlightening (try playing with Google Trends sometime, at www.google.com/trends), but can it be useful?

It’s been useful to advertisers for years of course, and Google has made billions by helping advertisers utilize their mountains of data to attract more customers. And it’s useful for website owners. But can it be useful for… society?

Google recently asked that question itself, and its response was to create www.google.org. Google.org’s mission is to use “Google's strengths in information and technology to build products and advocate for policies that address global challenges.” So far, the site’s most well formed contribution is Google Flu Trends, which uses flu-related search terms to track flu activity. So far, Google’s methods have proven incredibly accurate—the research was even published in a major scientific journal. The main advantage of Google Flu Trends is that it’s a real-time service; current government statistics on flu activity, collected from doctors, have a two-week lag time.

Being able to identify and react to flu epidemics earlier is certainly a promising use of Google’s mountains of data.

Then, earlier this October, Google’s chief economist (who knew Google even had a chief economist?) said the company is developing a Google price index, based on online price trends. The measure could eventually rival the government’s CPI, which, because it’s based on data collected from actual brick-and-mortar stores (and then compiled by the government) has a lag time of several weeks.

This news got me—and plenty of others—imagining a world without the rude stock market gyrations that follow the release of government statistics on everything from inflation to unemployment. (Unfortunately my own crude attempts to find some kind of pattern in queries like “unemployment benefits” turned up no discernable patterns … but Google is far better at this than I am. I also tried to find some trend in searches for gold- and silver-related words, but don’t bother.) In a world where reading last night’s sports scores or the Dow’s closing price in the morning paper will put you hours behind the rest of the world, why are we still waiting to get our unemployment statistics from the government weeks after the fact?

Another eventuality was pointed out by Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and columnist at the Financial Times. On October 15, Mr. Caldwell wrote in the Financial Times: “If Google is better at predicting inflation, unemployment and influenza, it will probably be better at predicting crime, terrorism and political unrest. … Why should a sclerotic and bureaucratic government deny itself the tools so plentifully available in the private sector?” (Which sent me to look up sclerotic, which means “of, relating to or affected with sclerosis,” with the last word being a convenient link to the definition of sclerosis.)

Caldwell seemed a bit wary of this prospect, predicting “a closer union between power and specialised knowledge.” However, I don’t see how more knowledge and better technology could be anything but good for the government. In fact, I’d be downright elated if the government was more like Google.

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I already trust Google with all my personal information—I use Gmail at home and work, I recently got a Google Voice number and I’d like to get an Android phone soon so my Google calendar can finally be seamlessly linked to my phone’s calendar. As far as I’m concerned, the more of the world’s information Google sees fit to organize, the better.

As for Google (GOOG), the stock, it may seem expensive at over $600 per share. But it was just featured in the latest Dick Davis Investment Digest as a good buy at this price. The excerpt came from our own Michael Cintolo, Editor of Cabot Top Ten Weekly, who had this to say:

“We’re always interested in big, well-traded growth stocks that gap up strongly on earnings—such a move usually indicates something exciting is brewing. In Google’s (GOOG) case, the company is reinventing itself as its core online paid-click ad business slows from the rapid growth seen in the mid-2000s. The two areas management is most excited about are non-text display ads (such as those seen on YouTube, a site that now attracts two billion views per week), which are now bringing in revenue at an annual rate of $2.5 billion, and mobile (boosted by the firm’s Android platform, which leads to more mobile searches), which is tracking at a $1 billion run rate. These businesses helped Google crush earnings estimates last Thursday evening and left analysts scrambling to hike their outlooks. It’s not going to double in a month, but we feel the stock has upside as institutional investors build positions.”

Since Mike wrote that on October 18, GOOG has continued to act well, hovering just above $600. If you’ve got at least $600 to invest, I can’t think of a company more likely to deliver tomorrow’s world-changing innovations than Google.

Wishing you success in your investing and beyond,

Chloe Lutts
For Cabot Wealth Advisory

Editor’s Note: Google was recently featured in Dick Davis Investment Digest. Learn more about it and other leading stocks in future issues.

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