Political Search Trends: The partisanship behind popular Web queries

Linguistic researchers have gotten very good at teaching computers to recognize a person's political bent when he or she takes to Twitter to spout off about politics. Thanks to their algorithms, we can measure how positive or negative people are about candidates and topics on the microblogging platform without tasking some poor junior staffer with reading 100,000 tweets and categorizing them as mean or nice.

This method of "sentiment analysis" doesn't work for search engine queries, however, since people don't tend to show their cards when looking for information online—they just type in a few keywords about a subject without much clue as to what their opinion about it may be. So to game out the politics of popular search terms, Yahoo! Labs and the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam have developed a tool, Political Search Trends, that analyzes queries by studying whether people who search for a topic tend to click through to more liberal or conservative websites that turn up in the results.

Last week, for example, popular political search terms included "game change film," HBO's biopic about the McCain-Palin campaign, and "obama harvard tapes," a video of the president in 1991 that conservative agitator Andrew Breitbart had vowed to release before his untimely death March 1. Neither term, on its surface, suggests what people think about the subject. But our tool finds that many more people searching for the film, which was not exactly flattering to Sarah Palin, ended up on liberal-leaning sites. Likewise, people searching for the Harvard tapes, which were hyped as showing a young Obama as far more radical than he is now portrayed, directed many more people to conservative-leaning sites.

The categorization for a site's political orientation comes from political scientists and other domain experts. Popular left-leaning sites include Huffington Post and AlterNet, while on the right we see a lot of traffic going to the Drudge Report and Free Republic.

You can use the tool to find queries for a particular week—for example, the early days of the Occupy Wall Street protests—or a particular subject—here's data on taxes. When you see an icon of a scale show up, you can click it to get fact-checked statements from Politifact. (Other researchers are exploring a much broader integration of fact-checking.)

From a methodological point of view, Political Search Trends combines the supply side—what people are blogging about—with the demand side—what people are searching for. Other groups are building related tools focusing on the supply side of the equation, but we chose the middle way as it easily gives us concise summaries of partisan issues in a given week.

Updated Mar. 19, 2012 at 11:31 p.m. ET.

Ingmar Weber is a research Scientist at Yahoo! Research in Barcelona. He works in Web data mining and Web science.

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