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Inside Google's Hot Topics, a real-time heat map of news and chatter

February 16, 2010 |  3:25 pm

For a couple of years, Google has offered its real-time Hot Trends list, which shows curious users a list of the most active search terms -- a kind of heat map of the news and cultural developments everyone is trying to find out about.

In December, Google added a complementary list, called Hot Topics, which reflects the trends and keywords that are generating the most chatter.

Those are the topics that are being mentioned most actively across the spectrum of online media: news reports, blogs, and updates -- a term Google uses to encompass user messages from Twitter, Facebook and its own Google Buzz. 

Real-time
The real-time search widget that pops up for hot topics in Google's search.

Hot Topics also takes Hot Trends into account when deciding which subjects are getting the most online attention. A flurry of search queries can often signal that a news event has happened before it's been widely reported-- take today's intensive searching of "hotmail down."

There's a direct link, too, between Hot Topics and the "real-time results" widget that started showing up on Google results pages in December. (It's the little window that shows the latest blog posts and updates scrolling through.) 

Not every search term will have the real-time widget -- only those that are generating the most discussion noise at a given moment. So if you do a search for, say, film director Kevin Smith and see the real-time window on the page, that's an indication that it's currently a hot topic -- even if it doesn't show up on the list of the top 10.

Dylan Casey, Google's product manager in charge of real-time and blog search, was willing to explain a bit about how real-time input improved Google's results overall.

In deciding how to order its search results, Google always tries to offer the most relevant results first -- so users can find what they're looking for with the least possible effort.  

But increasingly, Casey said, people are searching for topics that are in the news one day, and gone the next -- meaning that their relevance fluctuates very quickly.

"The truth is that real time is important because often the topic is only important for a short time," Casey said.

The best way for Google to track temporal relevance is by keeping its finger on the pulse of what people are talking about at the present moment. Because everyone's talking about Smith this week, Google will want to make sure anyone searching his name finds the latest news about his Southwest Airlines incident.

But by next week, the scandal will have blown over, and what people are saying about Smith won't be of wide interest. At that point, Google can (automatically) remove the real-time results widget and go back to a more straightforward page of search results.   

-- David Sarno

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