Which are the most interesting states in America?

An elderly couple looks out at the ocean as they sit on a park bench in La Jolla, California November 13, 2013.

Some US states are obscure, despite large land areas. Image: REUTERS/Mike Blake

Christopher Ingraham
Writer, Wonk Blog
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What is America's most obscure state? Economist Tyler Cowen posed this question on the Marginal Revolution blog not too long ago.

Cowen initially proposed Nebraska, but after running through a list of notable Nebraskans and their contributions to society, he seems to have settled on Idaho instead.

Cowen's initial impulse was probably the more correct one. When Buzzfeed asked a bunch of Brits to label U.S. states on a map a few years ago, they identified Nebraska as, among other things, "Further South Dakota," "Middleshire," "Who cares" and "Chicago."

Fortunately, we don't need to rely on the wisdom of economists or Britons to answer this question. Instead, we can seek closure in the cold hard bosom of data and pose the question to Google instead: Which U.S. states get searched the most -- and the least?

Image: Wonk Blog

The map above plots the relative search interest in each U.S. state since 2004. These figures include domestic as well as international searches, and could reflect queries as diverse as "weather in California" to "Is Minnesota a state?"

The top five most-searched states are, in order, California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania. And to answer Tyler Cowen's original question, the bottom five states, in descending order, are Idaho, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, and, at the absolute bottom of the 50-state barrel: Wyoming.

Sharp-eyed readers who have been around the cartographic block a few times are probably already protesting. They'll point out that the map above is basically just a population map, which tells us only that states with more people will naturally generate more Google searches -- not exactly earth-shattering news.

That's exactly right, but it's also not necessarily an issue. The "most obscure" state is probably also going to be the least-searched one. States with low population will have fewer in-state residents looking up things about that state on Google. And by and large, there will be fewer people doing the interesting things that cause outsiders to look up that state.

So we could take the analysis one step further by asking a slightly different question: which states underperform when it comes to search interest relative to their population? And which ones overperform, generating more searches than you'd expect just by population alone?

A simple back-of-the-envelope way to tackle this would be to compare the rankings of each state by population and by search interest. The chart below plots the ranking of each state on population (x-axis) and search interest (y-axis).

Image: Wonk Blog

States in blue overperform on search relative to their population -- that is, they rank higher in search than they do in population. States in red, on the other hand, underperform.

You can see that the biggest overperformer is, oddly enough, Alabama -- it's the 24th most populous state, but the 15th most frequently-searched state. It's hard to say what's driving the discrepancy, but Google's data offer some clues. For instance, Google's nifty Correlate tool shows that many Alabama-related searches have to do with sports scores and events -- perhaps tied to the popularity of college sports at the University of Alabama. Or, there may be something unique about the state the causes its residents to use the state's name in Google searches more often -- searching for rules and regulations on things like drivers' licenses and the like.

Other big overperformers include Hawaii and Alaska, Colorado and Connecticut.

On the other side of the ledger, the state that appears to generate the lowest amount of search interest relative to its size is Indiana. The Hoosier State comes in at #16 in terms of population, but 10 rankings lower at #26 in search. Peeking under the hood using the Correlate tool, we see that most of the searches seem to be connected to local businesses and services.

Louisiana, West Virginia, New Mexico and Idaho also are considerably under-searched compared to their population.

So what does this all tell us? First, population is a pretty good overall marker for a state's relative renown. To go back to Tyler Cowen's original question, Wyoming appears to be the nation's least-searched, or most obscure, state.

On the other hand, some states have bigger or smaller internet footprints than you'd expect given the size of their population. By this metric, you might say that Indiana is the nation's least-interesting state, at least according to the way we search for things. And that Alabama is the Most Interesting State in the World.

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