It's only a partial picture of what's on our minds, however, because subjects pertaining to pornography and gambling have been framed out of the image.
"Zeitgeist means 'the spirit of the times,' and we strive to capture this spirit through exploring the year's new and exciting search terms," a Google spokesperson explained in an e-mail. "Searches for adult keywords are pretty constant, and although they may be popular, we don't think they define the Zeitgeist for any one year. We apply the same kinds of filters to the Zeitgeist that we use for SafeSearch, so no adult keywords are included. We have also removed duplicate entries, including misspellings. Additionally, we remove any spammy results."
Nonetheless, there's still something to be learned from Google searches, as the company has shown through Google Flu Trends, which correlates searches about flu symptoms to the incidence of the flu in the U.S. populace.
The fastest rising searches on Google.com in the U.S. during the year were: 1) Obama; 2) Facebook; 3) AT&T; 4) iPhone; 5) YouTube; 6) Fox News; 7) Palin; 8) Beijing 2008; 9) David Cook; and 10) surf the channel.
"Fastest rising" is determined by taking the most popular searches from January 2008 through November 2008 and ranking them based on the change in their frequency between this year and the same period in 2007.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's name was the fastest rising search in the United States on Google Image Search and on Google News. Other popular image searches in the United States included: 2) Obama; 3) twilight; 4) Miley Cyrus; and 5) Joker. Among searches of Google News, the most popular keywords after "Sarah Palin" were: 2) American Idol; 3) McCain; 4) Olympics; and 5) Ike (the hurricane).
Palin also topped the list of fastest rising searches globally. President-elect Barack Obama was sixth on the global list.
The top economic queries in the U.S., unsurprisingly, had to do with the economic meltdown. The economic searches with the most overall volume included: 1) financial crisis; 2) depression; 3) bailout; 4) mortgage crisis; 5) Wall Street; 6) oil; 7) stock market; 8) subprime; 9) credit crisis; and 10) housing crisis.
Many queries in the U.S. were phrased as a question. These "what is" searches sought answers on a broad range of topics, including: 1) what is love; 2) what is life; 3) what is Java; 4) what is SAP; 5) what is RSS; 6) what is Scientology; 7) what is autism; 8) what is lupus; 9) what is 3G; 10) what is art.
Those wishing to conduct further research into what people are searching for may wish to consult Google Trends and Google Insight for Search.