I have a tradition every Sunday morning: no matter how much work I need to catch up on, I always start the day with the New York Times crossword puzzle. I almost always finish it, too. (Thanks, Brandeis University Department of English and American Literature. It seems a liberal arts education has a purpose after all.)

Now and then — very rarely, I assure you — I find myself stumped. In such cases, I swallow my pride and run a web search to see if the internets hold the elusive answer. That happened today: 85 Across asked for “Carnaval sur la plage” artist and I was at a loss. I’d never heard of the painting, so I had no idea of who the painter might have been.

I went over to Google, ran the search, and there was my answer within the snippets of the second and fourth results on the SERP. I didn’t even have to click through to find out that it was that famed Belgian painter, immortalized by They Might Be Giants.

But here’s the really interesting thing: above the regular results, Google had inserted links to a couple of “searches related to carnaval sur la plage artist”:

carnaval sur la plage artist google search

Erm… “Ron Guidry nickname?” “Mario Puzo sequel?” Those searches are related to this painting?

Carnaval sur la plage by James Ensor

I don’t see any pitchers or gangsters in there. So how can those searches be related to the search I ran?

Well, if I cheated more, I might have noticed right away, because if you go to today’s puzzle, you’ll see that the clues for 94 Down and 21 Across are “Nickname for Ron Guidry” and “Mario Puzo sequel.” They’re related by the fact that they’re in the same puzzle.

I tried running searches based on other clues in the puzzle to see how much of the puzzle the engine had determined to have this relationship:

  • 4 Down: “My Fair Lady” composer returns related searches for Mario Puzo and Bad Moon Rising — the clue for 49 Down is “__ bad moon rising” – 1969 song lyric
  • 21 Across: Mario Puzo sequel returns related searches for Mario Puzo books and balalaikas — the clue for 22 Across is relatives of balalaikas
  • 22 Across: relatives of balalaikas returns no related searches
  • 54 Across: Chinese dynasty before the Shang and 103 Across: harmonica-like instrument both return related searches, but without any connection to the crossword
  • 42 Across: Chief city of Moravia and 48 Across: “Revelations” choreographer return no related searches

So apparently, Google hasn’t indexed the content of the puzzle and related every clue to it. Rather, it looks like it has detected a trend: someone searches on some of the clues, someone else searches on the same clues, someone else searches on some of those and a few others, and this all happens within a few hours, so Google determines that the searches are related to each other based on that, so when I come in and search on one of the clues, Google offers up some of the other searches that were run today by other people who ran that same search.

Interestingly, I’m finding that a search on the exact clue for 94 Down, Nickname for Ron Guidry, isn’t returning any related searches. That only comes up when I search on Ron Guidry nickname, which is the more likely search syntax, considering the absence of the stop word. (And by the way, the related searches now coming up for that one are now Mario Puzo sequel and state flowers — the latter being the theme of this week’s puzzle.)

Apparently, this is something new. A search for [google related searches crossword] didn’t give me any useful information, but I did locate a post from just over a week ago on the Official Google Blog: Two new improvements to Google results pages. Here’s some of the text from the post:

Starting today, we’re deploying a new technology that can better understand associations and concepts related to your search, and one of its first applications lets us offer you even more useful related searches (the terms found at the bottom, and sometimes at the top, of the search results page).

For example, if you search for [principles of physics], our algorithms understand that “angular momentum,” “special relativity,” “big bang” and “quantum mechanic” are related terms that could help you find what you need.

We are now able to target more queries, more languages, and make our suggestions more relevant to what you actually need to know. Additionally, we’re now offering refinements for longer queries — something that’s usually a challenging task. You’ll be able to see our new related searches starting today in 37 languages all around the world.

There’s nothing in there about tracking groups of searches over a short period of time and relating them to each other, but that seems to be what’s going on here.

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