Britney Spears tops Web search list

San Francisco Chronicle

Pop star Britney Spears and social networking phenomenon MySpace were the most popular search engine queries in 2006, underscoring America's obsession with celebrity and social networking.

At least that's what Yahoo and claim are the public's fixations, in their annual lists of the top search terms.

Claim is the key word here because the lists are filtered of pornography and, in some cases, generic words and company names. Editing is intended to make the findings more interesting (i.e., dominated by pop culture) and family friendly (''sex'' is forbidden).

Yahoo's No. 1 U.S. ranking went to Spears, whose star power has remained strong despite a hiatus in her music career for motherhood. How else to keep up with her filing for divorce from husband Kevin Federline and showing photographers more than she intended during various late nights out on the town with fellow starlet Paris Hilton?

After Spears in Yahoo's 2006 rankings was World Wrestling Entertainment, Colombian pop star Shakira, singer Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton.

Internet companies such as Yahoo keep track of top search terms to help marketers gauge consumer interest in products and the success of advertising campaigns. They also publish some of the data in weekly, monthly and yearly installments as a publicity stunt.

Their findings vary. Methodology and user demographics of a particular search engine can skew the rankings., based in Oakland, said that its top query for 2006 was MySpace, the Web site for users to post profiles, keep a blog and connect with friends. MySpace use has soared in popularity during the past couple of years to the point where it is among the most trafficked sites online.

The rest of the rankings were made up of relatively broad terms around personal entertainment and utilitarian information including ''dictionary,'' ''games,'' ''cars,'' ''food'' and ''song lyrics.''

Still, for a more accurate, unfiltered snapshot of what interests Internet users, it's necessary to go to a third-party firm that tracks Web traffic. For example, Nielsen//NetRatings, which examined queries on all search engines for The Chronicle through November 2006, found that the leading terms were pretty dull: Google, eBay, MySpace, Yahoo and Mapquest.

No pop divas appeared in the top 100 terms. And contrary to popular belief, adult terms were low on the list, with ''porn'' at No. 38 and ''sex'' at No. 45.

In many cases, Internet users treat the search box like a browser. Instead of typing a domain into the address bar such as, they entered it into a search engine.

Google, the Mountain View, Calif., search engine, didn't publish an overall list of top search terms. Instead, it created a list of the hottest search terms based on the percentage increase in queries from the previous year.

How long the spike lasted was irrelevant. Many were popular during only a brief period during the year.

''It gives us a sense of what's new in our consciousness,'' said Douglas Merrill, vice president of engineering at Google.

For example, ''Bebo,'' a social networking startup in San Francisco, was No. 1 on Google's global rankings, based on its increased popularity, particularly overseas. ''MySpace,'' ''World Cup,'' the video site ''Metacafe,'' and the music and player download site ''Radioblog'' followed.

Like many search engines, Google also tracked different categories of search queries that shed light on what users were interested in terms of news (Paris Hilton), scandals (Duke lacrosse scandal) and questions (Hezbollah appeared at the top of the list of ''What is'' and No. 2 in ''Who is,'' indicating that some users mistakenly thought the organization was a person).

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