Like many other people I often type in a URL or company name into Google – or the Google Toolbar – to access websites. It has become quite a habit. Turns out I’m not alone.

Research published a few weeks ago by Google revealed that Bebo was the most popular Google search query for 2006. Or at least that’s what it read like until I turned on my brain and read the fine print.

In fact, the Google Zeitgeist compares “frequent queries this year against 2005 to see what sorts of things were top of mind”. So strip away porno terms and what are we left with? Bebo, apparently, followed by Myspace.

For the year-end Zeitgeist Big G compared the amount of searches and traffic in 2006 against 2005. It follows that Bebo, which only launched in 2005, generated a lot more buzz in 2006. But then surely the same can be said of YouTube, which doesn’t figure in the top 10 whatsoever, and which shares a similar lifespan to Bebo.

So we now know that Google Zeitgeist is not in fact representative of the most popular searches, just the stuff that might “represent our collective consciousness at any given time”, the trends, the movers and shakers.

The firm admirably fessed up on the Official Google Blog about its unclear messaging in the Zeitgeist year-end press release, which received some flak among tech writers / bloggers, but not until the world’s media had reported it at length.

The venerable Beeb best demonstrates the perception of this Zeitgeisty confusion by way of a BBC News article, which starts like this: “Social networks Bebo and MySpace were the two most searched for terms of 2006 using Google’s search engine.” Not Accurate, Beebers!

What then, would be on the list of the most popular search phrases?

According to Google the most popular searches don’t change very much at all, from year to year. Google’s Artem Boystov speaketh: “This list would be predominated by very generic searches, such as ‘ebay’, ‘dictionary’, ‘yellow pages’, ‘games’, ‘maps’ – and of course, a number of X-rated keywords.” Damn right it would, but we were always under the impression that Yahoo was the most searched-for term on Google (and vice versa, by all accounts…). I’m sure a Googler told me that.

But hey, don’t we already have some information on the most popular search queries? Yes we do, thanks to last year’s shenanigans at AOL. Brilliant!

Ok, place your bets now. Because, going back to the start of this article, I suggested that I’m increasingly use search engines – and specifically the Google toolbar – to access websites. Not information about things, just websites.

And AOL’s top five are:

1. google
2. ebay
3. yahoo
5. mapquest

A pattern emerges: search engines have become our de facto interface for cruising the web, whether we know the ultimate destination or we don’t.

Never, it seems, has brand-focused SEO been so important.