Psychologists, social scientists, and even medical sleuths now mine Internet search trends for insights. Small wonder, day by day, hour by hour, the sudden popularity of particular search terms is a useful barometer of what moves, worries, or intrigues us.
At WebMD, the terms vary widely, but the categories remain remarkably similar. The latest weight loss plan is a perennial favorite, naturally. Outbreaks of illness send readers rushing to find information about symptoms and prevention. But there are always surprises. Once-rare diseases jump to the forefront when celebrities are affected. Social issues barely acknowledged in past years -- like bullying, one of this year's leading searches -- suddenly spark outrage and concern.
Among the many search terms that increased on WebMD this year, here are the ones that made our list of 2011's top search trends -- and why they shot to the top. Although they all showed an increase year over year, some may have peaked most intensely for a month, while others showed increases for several months or longer.
- Pancreatic cancer symptoms: The man who transformed the way we work and play tops our list. When Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in October, readers turned to WebMD to find out more about the disease. Searches on pancreatic cancer and its symptoms and signs increased more than 50% from the previous month, while coverage of his death ranked first among WebMD news stories in October. Previous years saw similar interest when actor Michael Douglas went public with his diagnosis of throat cancer in 2010, and Farrah Fawcett died of anal cancer in 2009.
- Listeria: This year, the food-borne bacteria Listeria grabbed the spotlight when more than a hundred people got sick and 29 died after eating contaminated cantaloupes. It replaced salmonella, which sickened 140 people who ate contaminated alfalfa sprouts in 2010. The biggest jump came in October at the height of the outbreak, and overall page views to listeria content increased nearly 2,000% for the year.
- Bullying: Concussions made our 2010 list when reports showed that football players were sustaining permanent brain damage after violent tackles. This year, fears turned to bullying when 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself after being taunted because he was gay. Search to the term “bullying” spiked in the month of his death, jumping more than 186% from the previous month. Surveys find that one in four middle-school kids reported being bullied. Lady Gaga, the queen of "Be Yourself," announced a new foundation to stop bullying -- just one of several such initiatives launched in 2011.
- Dukan Diet: When rumors flew (unconfirmed) that Kate Middleton went on the Dukan Diet to lose weight for her storied wedding to Prince William, readers rushed to WebMD for the latest. Page views to Dukan Diet content grew by more than 1,200% year over year, with interest peaking around the time of the couple’s April wedding. Despite that interest, one of the previous year’s popular weight loss plans, the low-glycemic diet, remains a wiser choice. In 2011, the British Dietetic Association listed the Dukan Diet among the five worst. Last year, the distinguished New England Journal of Medicine reported that low-glycemic diets actually helped people shed pounds.
- Bath salts: When readers searched the site for "bath salts" they weren't thinking tubs. The term refers to a trio of dangerous synthetic recreational drugs that mimic cocaine or meth that were banned this year by the DEA. Marketed under names like Bliss and Vanilla Sky, the drugs cause some people to become violent. Searches to “bath salts” spiked by nearly 5,500% this year. Last year saw a similar increase when the DEA banned K2, Spice, and other brands of synthetic cannabis.