Admit it: You've googled yourself at some point just, to see how many G-Hits you got. The number of search hits certainly isn't a measure of importance in world history, but it does measure something. After all, "Lindsay Lohan" gets twice as many hits as "Hillary Clinton" or "Condoleezza Rice," and I am sure you can guess who wins in a Google face-off between "Snooki" and "Ernest Hemingway."
So what happens when we measure the number of Google hits for our presidents? Not surprisingly, the most recent presidents have far more hits than presidents of earlier centuries with a major step-up in search hits starting with Reagan. Controlling for these recency effects, we find that the Google rankings of presidents corresponds very well to historians' rankings. That is to say, the popularity of presidents online usually, but not always,corresponds to their greatness as perceived by historians.
The top recency-adjusted Google rankings of the pre-Reagan era:
This ranking is remarkably similar to those from the last four polls of historians taken between 2008 and 2010. This top seven recency-adjusted Google rankings captured the top five, number eight (Wilson) and number eleven (Kennedy). We can safely assume that Kennedy's good looks, his family history, alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe and his untimely death boosted his online appeal.
Which presidents were rated great by historians, but don't drive as much interest or mindshare in our internet brain? Harry Truman, the imminently quotable Missourian, is failing to receive the online attention one might expect. Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero, has also been relatively left behind by the online community.
Which president is receiving more online mindshare than historians might expect? James Buchanan. (I have no idea who he is either, but I can Bing him.)
On a more philosophical note, as we celebrate President's Day, it is worth reflecting on Lincoln's famous quote: "And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." Of the great presidents listed above, Jefferson was the only one to reach 70 years of age, yet they all left a major impact on America and the world.
Technical note for the statistics people: The recency adjustment consisted of building a multi-variate model of google hits using linear, non-linear and a step function inputs. The step function's changepoint was determined by spline regression.
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