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Don’t trust the Top 10

The Web never fails as a source of raw, unspun data, and rarely does more of it come to light than in December when journalists, pundits and even toiling bloggers are looking to put a bow on the year that was. In that spirit, let’s take a quick look at Yahoo’s Top Searches for 2008 list, just out this week.

What leaps out is that in the year of the most-watched, most-blogged, most networked election ever, Barack Obama was the number 3 search term for Yahoo users, surpassed by Britney Spears and WWE (the dominant pro wrestling league, for those not up on such matters).

According to comScore, U.S. Web users turn to Google for about 63% of their searches. Yahoo grabs just over 20%. Thanks to Google Trends, which allows visitors to track the relative popularity (though not absolute number) of search terms, we can compare the Yahoo list to how searches for Britney Spears, WWE and Obama add up on Google.

While Britney and WWE track rather closely, it appears from spikes on the graph, as well as the chart breaking out search by language, that Obama is the clear winner. It’s possible that Yahoo’s list says more about who is using Yahoo as their primary search engine than it does about the state of popular culture.

What does it mean for people trying to make sense of how people use the Web? For starters, top-down lists of popular terms don’t yield much in the way of actionable information. Searches of social media yield information not on what people are seeking, but on content people are creating, discussing and sharing.

Some good places to start are Twitter’s Search page (which doesn’t require you to register), blog search engine Technorati and the search box on the upper right of the homepage at social bookmarking site