Nope, Zebulon Wasn’t a “Hot” Baby Name in 2012

Not long ago I stumbled upon a post about baby names at the blog North Carolina Miscellany. It ended with this funny little footnote:

After seeing a baby-names website tout North Carolina’s most historically distinctive names, Zebulon and Zeb, as among 2012′s “hottest,” I was expecting to see them rise in the national rankings. Alas, no. How hot can a name be and still not crack the top 1,000?

Excellent question. Because, not only did Zebulon not make the top 1,000 in 2012, it sank from 25 baby boys in 2011 to a mere 19 in 2012. So, not “hot” at all.

The footnote linked to an earlier post at the same blog called Zebulon on the Rise, which reads:

The News and Observer reported yesterday that the name Zebulon is increasingly popular among parents today, and was listed on a website as one of the “14 hottest” names of the year.

(The post went on to talk about the many North Carolina babies that have been named after Zebulon Vance. But I digress…)

The News and Observer article on Zebulon revealed that the “14 hottest” list had been put out by Nameberry.com.

What were their 13 other “hot” names? Arya, Blue, Caia, Calix, Decimus, Django, Gatsby, Halcyon, Niall, Nova, Senna, Sybil and Theon.

Three of these names — Arya, Calix and Nova — did see big jumps in usage in 2012. But the rest either stayed about the same or were used less often. So, only 3 clear winners out of 14 guesses. Just 21% correct.

How could a site that specializes in baby names get it so wrong?

It has to do with metrics. Nameberry came up with that list by looking at their own website traffic, not by looking at any sort of genuine usage data (e.g., public records, birth announcements). The problem with this, of course, is that the names people search for online often have nothing to do with the names they use in real life. (How many of us like to look up weird celebrity baby names, for instance? *raises hand*)

Not that it matters. Most of the big baby name websites are guilty of using iffy data to compile lists of “top” or “hot” baby names. These lists garner plenty of media attention, but are they ever accurate?

I wish the baby name sites that release these lists would revisit them once the official data for their region is available and publicly assess how well their predictions stand up to the real thing.

Y’know, just to prove that the “experts” aren’t simply churning out link bait…

7 Responses to Nope, Zebulon Wasn’t a “Hot” Baby Name in 2012

  1. I never assumed that by “hot” Namberry authors meant that those names would be steadily increasing in popularity year by year.

    I thought they meant hip, fashionable, edgy – in fact, the opposite of going up steadily in popularity, like a Noah or an Ava.

    In other words, “Nameberry popular” rather than “real world popular”.

    If so, this would make Arya a spectacular failure as a “hot” name, as it is now very mainstream.

  2. I see what you mean — image as opposed to usage.

    But I believe the Nameberry ladies were implying that there’d be an increase in real-life usage specifically. At least from 2011 to 2012.

    “Satran says her website could indicate Zebulon’s resurgence” — a quote from the News and Observer article.

  3. Yes that does seem a very tentative suggestion that Zebulon might increase in popularity, although I can’t see where she puts a time limit on it. It certainly doesn’t seem to be resurging at the moment, anyway.

    I have a vague recollection of reading something by either Linda or Pam that said they do believe there is a correlation between their site data and real world popularity, but that there is a lengthy lag between the two: I can’t believe they would really think that a rare name like Zebulon would suddenly shoot up in just a year.

    But yeah, it wouldn’t be very link-baity to say: “Tiny chance that Zebulon may gradually become more popular over the next 40 years, but who knows really?.”

  4. Yeah, and that’s basically my gripe with it. Your “tiny chance” sentence, though it wouldn’t make a great title, is realistic. Their title, “Baby Names 2012: What’s Hot Now,” makes for good linkbait but doesn’t mach up to reality.

    (Depending on how you interpret “hot,” of course. I’m assuming most people equate it with usage. I could be wrong, though.)

    They think there’s a correlation between traffic to a name website and real-world name usage for a particular nation? Cute. :) There might be slight correlations here and there, but that’s probably it.

    I mean, first there’s Google. Websites get traffic on what they rank well for, so if Nameberry sees more/fewer hits on a particular name page, first they need to prove that what they’re seeing isn’t simply due to a Google algorithm update.

    After that, they need to control for other factors. Is the traffic coming from the right country? (Should international traffic count when compiling a list for a U.S.-based audience?) What web pages are visitors coming from specifically? (Maybe 90% of the traffic to Nameberry’s Zebulon page last year came from a Reddit post. Are those visitors, passively surfing in, worth as much as visitors actively searching the web for Zebulon?) And so forth.

    If they really believe they can make great predictions, they ought to track that stuff publicly and prove it, lag time or not.

  5. Fair comment, Nancy. It would be almost impossible to match web-hits with real world usage – especially as they are coming from all over the world.

    By the way, I occasionally write articles for online magazines, and the author doesn’t usually write their own headline – that’s the editor’s job. And they usually make it as attention-grabbing as possible.

    So you might write a very responsible, balanced article on recent advances in modern medicine, carefully stressing it may be many years before clinical trials will be completed, and the headline will probably be: Cure for Cancer Just Around the Corner.

  6. I actually love Zebulon… but I’ve never noticed any support from pretty much anyone I’ve *ever* mentioned it to, barring the mothers of a couple Zevuluns. ;)

  7. @Anna – Good point about headlines! When it’s enticement vs. accuracy, unfortunately accuracy tends to lose out.

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