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Paul Is Not Dead (But He Might Be More Popular If He Were)

A reader named John Grund wrote in to lament the relative unpopularity of Paul McCartney — relative, that is, to John Lennon. Grund bases his assumption on a Google Trends search of the two men’s names. Indeed, aside from the occasional spike, McCartney lags behind his long-deceased mate (Lennon is in red):

“You might think that if McCartney ever had a chance to outdo Lennon in Web searches, it would be now,” Grund explained in his e-mail. “Paul has a new album out, which is being heavily promoted by Starbucks, he’s had a high-profile divorce that has kept him in the news, and he’s been the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, John has, well, been dead for 20 years.”

I must say, I also found Lennon’s dominance curious. I’m not going to open the who’s-better-John-or-Paul can of worms (personally, I don’t care that much, since I’m a Rolling Stones guy; I’m sorry, but you can’t really be both). Still, even if you think Lennon was far more interesting than McCartney, and the better artist, wouldn’t you expect a pop culture icon like McCartney to be racking up the Google searches?

So I asked our friend Bill Tancer of Hitwise to take a look at his John v. Paul data. He came back with a very different picture. “Below is a 2-year chart for U.S. searches on Paul McCartney v. John Lennon. Looks like Sir Paul is doing well v. Lennon. That spike for John is on the week ending 12/10/05, or the 25th anniversary of his death. I’d guess that Paul’s spikes are related to album releases and tours.”

Why the disparity between the Hitwise data and the Google Trends data?

“Google Trends reports searches on the Google engine solely,” Tancer writes, “and we’re reporting searches across all engines (including Google), but in this case, just U.S. search queries.”

So it could be that Lennon is far more popular outside of the U.S. than McCartney. Or it could be that Google Trends for some reason has a bias in favor of dead pop stars versus living pop stars.

Before looking at the chart below, ask yourself this question: If you asked Google Trends to rank searches over the past few years for Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Lennon, and Paul Simon, who would come in last? One of the three dead ones, right? After all, Paul Simon has been releasing records, making news, winning awards, etc., just like Paul McCartney. So maybe he’d lose out to Elvis Presley, the King, but surely not to the others?

Wrong. (Presley is in blue, Lennon in red, Kobain in orange, Simon in green.)

We all know that death can, sadly, be a really good career move. But if Google Trends is to be believed, it’s even better than I would have imagined. All things considered, however, I’d still rather be Paul — either Simon or McCartney.