Google’s Diva Of Digital Trend-Spotting Goes Live On-Air

By Patrick May
San Jose Mercury News.

“Hi,” Roya Soleimani chirps merrily into the telephone. “It’s Google calling.”

It’s also 8:30 on a recent Friday morning, which for Google’s grande dame of trend-spotting means it’s showtime.

Over the next two hours, the bubbly communication manager for Google’s search-trend team talks with radio stations around the nation about what the masses have been asking the world’s largest search engine over the past week.

“Sharing these trends each week gives people a lens into a particular moment in time,” says the 29-year-old Iranian-American, who first got her on-the-air bug reading news for the Voice of America Persian in Washington. “We pick five of the top search trends that have climbed dramatically from the week before, giving listeners that weekly pulse. And it’s like catnip, because people love to find out what other people are searching for.”

She has a theory behind our collective fascination with what dominates that Google search box each week: “It’s like this shared experience,” says Soleimani, coffee cup at her side and iPhone in hand as she awaits her next radio session. “And there’s something almost comforting about knowing others are curious about the same thing you are.”

Every Thursday, Soleimani and her small team scour the week’s search landscape with the help of Google’s data-miners.

They identify 200 top trends, those searches that have jumped like crazy over the past few days, and winnow them down to their top five, leaving on the cutting-room floor those less interesting themes like crazy weather patterns and hackneyed celebrity gossip.

Sitting at her MacBook Air at a large wooden table at an apartment on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, “I do the calls from my boyfriend’s place so I don’t disturb my roommate!” she says, Soleimani dives into her schtick, serving heaping portions of Google gossip to listeners in Minneapolis and Dallas, North Carolina and California.

The chatter is caffeine-fueled, as Soleimani and the talk-radio talent chew over who’s been Googling what and what it all means.

This week in mid-September, it’s: iOS8 (Apple’s new operating system, its biggest release ever), NFL (domestic violence), the Scottish vote (the “Nos” have it), Surge Soda (fans lobbied to get their soda back on the market), and “passenger shaming” (yes, sharing photos of people doing stupid things on airplanes).

First up is North Carolina News Network, where chief correspondent Josh Zach is ready to record his 15-minute chat with Soleimani, and then share it with his 80 affiliated stations.

“Hey, Josh,” she says. “Happy Friday.”

And they’re off: “Let’s start with passenger shaming,” he says. “Something new, eh?”

Speaking at a quick clip, Soleimani says searches on this sky-high phenomenon have gone viral in recent weeks “because it rings true with anyone who travels and sees the crazy things people do on airplanes.” She says that after news articles began to appear about the Facebook page featuring photos of passengers behaving badly, the movement exploded “and it’s now been thrust onto the main stage.”

They chitchat about possible privacy issues over the practice before moving on to Surge Soda, the discontinued lemon-lime soda that Coca-Cola recently started selling on Amazon after fans lobbied for its return.

“Roya’s great,” Zach says in an interview the next day. “She’s had time to research each of these trends so by the time we talk on Friday, she’s very comfortable with all five of the trends and helps explain to our listeners why they’re so popular.”

Zach agrees with Soleimani that knowing others are searching the same things you are can be comforting. But our fascination with search trends also could be borne of a desire to find out what people around us are thinking but are unwilling to actually tell us, says Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

“It’s a sort of unwittingly granted insight into the social psyche. People wouldn’t necessarily tell you what they’ve been searching on Google, but Google anonymizes that data and shares it with you. So you’re getting this insight that would otherwise be hard to get.”

The weekly radio interviews grew out of another trend-spotting project that Google has been putting together annually for several years now called its Zeitgeist report. Like that project, the weekly radio gig is a way for Google to share with the world what stories and subjects most captivated users in a given period of time, providing both a bit of marketing for Google as well as a window into the spirit of the times we live in.

Some of the recent trends Soleimani featured are no-brainers (farewell, Joan Rivers!), while others are more surprising (the 1994 film “The Little Rascals” has spiked like crazy; go figure).

As a natural-born conversationalist, Soleimani loves the weekly on-air gig she’s been doing since January, especially being a part of this marriage of an old-school medium like radio with the latest in online search technology.

Between back-to-back interviews with stations in Miami, Minneapolis and San Jose, Soleimani says each of the trending searches are really just tips of an iceberg; people may search initially for the Scottish vote for independence, but then begin to dig deeper with subsequent searches into English-Scottish history or what a breakaway vote might have meant for the rest of Europe.

As she continues her on-air campaign to show the country what it’s collectively thinking about each week, Soleimani has become something of a celebrity in her own right, with strangers hearing her name and telling her, “Hey, I listened to you on the radio the other day!”

And she says the Google calling card often wows the hosts and guests on the other end of the line in far-flung communities across the United States.

“Some of these places seem so far away from Silicon Valley,” she says. “And they’re so excited, it’s like ‘Hey guys, we have Google on the line!'”

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