A Lighthearted Hall of Shame: The Number of Google Hits Is a Reliable Indicator of . . . the Number of Google Hits

CorrelationWe thought we'd wrap up the school year with a look at the numerical side of communication. Sports-minded students might've seen this map, labeled "Who Is the Most Popular Athlete in Your State?"

Aside from LeBron James's universal popularity, the map shows some fairly predictable regional preferences—Tom Brady in New England, Payton Manning in Colorado, and so on.

It all looks like good, harmless fun until you read the subtitle of the map: "Average Monthly Google Search Queries." Ugh. Putting aside the not-insignificant questions of defining and measuring popularity, the only valid insight one can glean from the number of Google searches is the number of times people used Google to search for a particular name.

At best, it's a meaningless measure of anything else, and it could conceivably mean the exact opposite of what the map claims to say. Maybe fans of the Portland Trailblazers despise LeBron James, and that's why he shows up as the most-searched athlete in the state of Oregon. And one of the athletes listed was involved in a widely reported hoax involving an imaginary girlfriend, so his high ranking might not be a measure of "popularity" at all.

It's not exactly mainstream business communication, but the map is a great example to share with your students about the dangers of misusing numbers, particularly numbers that are easy to use and misuse because they are readily available. (Finding out who is really the most popular athlete in each state would, of course, require a large and expensive survey.)

In the spirit of innumeracy, the website Spurious Correlations has some really entertaining graphs that highlight the dangers of confusing correlation with causality. Did you know that the divorce rate in Maine correlates almost exactly (0.99) with the per-capita consumption of margarine in the United States?

Once students see how ludicrous some of these correlations are, they might become a little more skeptical of the numbers they see tossed around in the daily news and be a little more careful about using numbers in their own communication efforts. In our chapters on conducting research for business reports, we discuss the dangers of confusing coincidence, correlation, and causality, and these graphs would make a great presentation to enhance your class discussions.

With that, we wish you a safe, restful, and enjoyable summer, and we'll be back in touch in August.


Image: Spurious Correlations