SAN FRANCISCO -- While the entire planet kicks back Sunday, collectively pops open a cold one and settles in to watch Germany and Argentina battle in the World Cup final, a geeky gang from Google will be hard at work in a secret bunker in San Francisco's techier-than-thou South Park neighborhood.
Their mission: To watch the world watch the match and, by monitoring Google searches in real time, tell us what we're thinking.
In a first-ever experiment by the Mountain View search giant, a team of about 20 data analysts, copywriters, illustrators and translators have been holed up the past six weeks inside a nondescript building facing the little park, ancestral land of Twitter and a steaming Petri dish of entrepreneurial yeast.
Their efforts to monitor World Cup-related searches, suss out interesting trends and then quickly create fun illustrations on Google's World Cup page for the world to go nuts over has been, in some ways, a warm-up act for this weekend's big finale.
"Sunday should be really exciting," said Madeline Kane, who works in brand marketing for Google. "Until now, we've focused on searches in the countries involved in a particular game. But now, with literally billions of people around the world watching the final game, it'll be fascinating to see what sorts of things they'll be searching for."
On a recent visit to what Google calls its "World Cup war room" at the company's digital ad agency R/GA, sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows. You could almost hear the low hum of inquisitive brain power, as team members' heads bobbed back and forth between the Argentina-Netherlands match on TV screens and the search stats unfurling across their laptop screens.
On one wall, dozens of colorful printouts showed the trends they'd culled from the 1.9 billion World Cup 2014 searches completed since the tournament started on June 12. Many were football-focused. For example, before and during Tuesday's match, when Germany trounced Brazil 7-1, the data crunchers' analytical tools came up with a curious discovery: In Germany, searches were spiking like crazy for updates on Brazil's star Neymar, perhaps nervous that he might suddenly come back off the disabled list.
At the same time, as they were getting their lunch handed to them, Brazilians were wondering en masse: What's the biggest win ever in World Cup history?
"By finding and analyzing these search trends, we're really bringing them to life," said Google communications manager Roya Soleimani. "The World Cup is the perfect vehicle to study this phenomenon because it's such a huge global event and there's so much passion surrounding it."
The war-room crew has focused on pulling out trends that are "fun and shareable," said Pete Jupp, a design director with R/GA and one of a handful of agency folks who'll be working with his Google cohorts in the war room this weekend. "Trends are something that everyone's talking about; so we're providing this unique glimpse into what the world's thinking about during each of these matches."
And Sunday, said Jupp, should be huge. "Once we start getting the data, we'll decide how to tell that story and find interesting ways to visualize it, not just for football fans but for everyone. There's so much anticipation built up for the final match that there'll be no shortage of things to talk about."
More than simply tracking the volume of searches, the team is using sophisticated monitoring tools to look for spikes in certain words and phrases that might indicate some World Cup-related hot topic that fans in one country or another are obsessing over.
It's as if the Internet were the world's water cooler, with Google eavesdropping on the chatter. As Kane put it, "People crave fodder for conversation around an event like this. Between our online visitors and the exposure the project has gotten on places like BBC, tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world are seeing our work."
A lot of that work, some of which is plastered on the office's colorful wall of trends, goes beyond the high-stakes soccer tournament. Among trends the team has found are search spikes for Mick Jagger (the Rolling Stones frontman is taking heat for putting a curse on Brazil when he was on hand for Tuesday's massacre); how to paint fingernails to look like the Brazilian flag (searches doubled above normal rates after fans were spotted sporting the design); and even "The Crimson Grasshopper," a Mexican television comedy from the 1970s that later became popular in Brazil.
That last trend ended up on the wall, as well as at google.com/trends. "Brazil sees Red," says the headline, with this text done by one of the team's writers: "Searches for Mexican TV character The Crimson Grasshopper have spiked in Brazil after Mexico fans dressed as him to support their team."
There have been search surges for Brazilian vice captain David Luiz and his rumored haircut, and for Mexico coach "Piojo" Herrera and his endearing sideline celebration during his team's match with Croatia. And let's not forget the spike triggered by Fernando Torres' wardrobe malfunction during the first half of the match between Spain and Australia.
Sunday not only means the end of the tournament, but also the end of a grueling six-week stint for the data divers. Brian Hurewitz, a freelance designer working for R/GA and doing many of the illustrations that accompany the search trends, has had only two days off since the World Cup madness began.
"The newsroom-style environment here has been a lot of fun," he said. "The design process typically can take weeks or months for a campaign. Having to do these illustrations in real time, with usually no more than an hour to finish once you get the data from the analysts across the room, forces you to be more decisive."
Is he excited about the final match?
"We're ready," he said. "We've had a lot of practice doing this, and Sunday should be the most fun of all."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.