Google Trends: Tool or toy?

October 18, 2007

Search trends for U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama demonstrate how Google Trends could be a useful tool even though the information Google provides is only comparative and doesn’t show the number of searches made.

clintonobamagoogtrend

Google’s “Google Trends” feature is much in the news today: Google has improved its feature that tracks the most popular search terms by making daily results available. Most people are curious about what others are thinking, so it’s not surprising that information outlets from TV news to bloggers are picking up this development. Most of the news coverage focuses on titillating search terms, and indeed much of what people seem to be looking for on Google is related either to sex or to irrelevant celebrities.

Google’s feature is interesting, but how useful is it, really? I’m sure there’s money to be made one way or another by following or anticipating the direction of search trends — it sounds like a good way to fish for topics if you’re trying to bump up your blog traffic, for example. But the utility of the tool is flawed because of the lack of quantitative information. I can see, for instance, that searches for “Gavin Newsom”, the mayor of San Francisco, spiked in February of this year. And I can see that over the past 12 months, more people have googled that term in Pleasanton than in San Francisco. But there are no hard numbers. Was it 100 people who googled Newsom? 100,000? 10 million? Google probably has this quantitative information, or the ability to get it, but it’s certainly proprietary and perhaps not in Google’s business interests to release numbers. However, quantifying these trends certainly would make this feature a more useful tool for serious study of what people really search for, and I hope Google will make the data available.

Despite the lack of hard data, however, there is some value in using this tool, particularly when instead of looking at just one search term, you use it for comparative analysis of several terms.

It seems likely that PR flacks, investors and people in advertising will be keen on Google Trends. To me, one field for application that comes to mind is politics. Below are some graphs that result from entering both “Hillary Clinton” and “Barack Obama” into Google Trends, where Clinton’s trend line appears in blue and Obama’s in red.

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