The United Kingdom shocked the world Friday morning as it was announced the country’s voters had narrowly decided to pull out of the European Union. It was a close vote, about 52%-48%, a result that went against public polling within a day of the referendum and split the country along stark geographic boundaries.
Now, with the very real threat of an extended recession and Scotland back on a trajectory to split from the UK, Google Trends is seemingly evidencing that many British voters might have been severely under-informed about the stakes of the vote. They might not have even known what the EU was.
While the top question is a reasonable one to ask in the wake of Brits’ collective decision, the second result is an eyebrow-raising, disconcerting one for people in the UK, the EU and people worldwide concerned about the global economic and political ramifications of the Brexit vote.
It is difficult to extrapolate if the majority of these searches are being conducted by eligible voters or younger people. Yet, the apparent lack of awareness of what the European Union actually is (rather than, say, what it does or how in detail it affects the United Kingdom) should probably set off alarm bells that a large number of Brits are simply unaware of how the EU works.
Yet, the question we should probably ask in response to these trends is, “Are Brits really that ignorant?”
In all likelihood, they are not. The question, “What is the EU?” has been trending since July 2015, exploding in search interest over the last 24 hours as general search traffic regarding Brexit also exploded.
You would think, by now, Brits would know the basics about the EU. And they do.
It might be that the shorter question is not indicative of a total lack of knowledge about the EU, rather Brits’ desire to refresh on a basic understanding of what the EU does or how it functions.
“What exactly is the EU?”
An abbreviated form of the question allows for basic, sometimes broad results and might even spit back recent news items. Often times, a simple definition will explain the basic function of something as well.
Google’s poor syntax has kept some questions short
Historically speaking, using Google meant not asking complex questions. Google’s ability to recognize more complex syntax is improving greatly, but shorter questions without common articles like the, a, an and prepositions used to be encouraged for search. That was one of the reason that exact-phrase search with quotation marks came about, to ensure desired results that did not remove smaller terms.
In fact, the further back you go, the more it was recommended not to use questions in Google search at all. And you only have to go back to 2011 to see that longer questions have long been actively discouraged when using search.
Old habits die hard. In fact, after Google announced a major upgrade to its search algorithms, Wired Magazine called the new and improved search “a little hit and miss.”
“Okay Google, what is…?”
Are there other major examples of such basic questions with seemingly obvious answers? You better believe it. Take one of the most popularly searched questions of 2014 according to Google Trends:
According to Google Trends’ 2014 end-of-year report, the second-most popularly googled question of 2014 in the United States was “What is the internet?” The beauty of this example is that it is abundantly clear that people using the internet to search this question are assuredly familiar with its existence. The intent of the question is likely learning how exactly it is structured, what makes it work and more technical knowledge (Is it made of tubes?).
What is more plausible? That millions of British citizens don’t actually know what the European Union is, or that they want to ensure they have a basic understanding and up-to-date relevant info about the biggest political decision of the generation? We’ll let you decide.