Google Trends: Research the Searches

GraphIt may come as no surprise that what we search for is being logged, counted and analysed. What may surprise you is that there is an online tool, called Google Trends, that allows us to research-the-searches or, to put it another way, you can have a look at what is being searched for by other users who are using Google as their search engine. Just to be clear, you can’t see who searched for what but the data available offers an Aladdin’s cave of information, trends and quirks that can be utilised by students for in-class projects. Google Trends is an immensely powerful tool that is constantly being updated to reflect our searching habits.

(Please note – the Google Trend graphs embedded on this page do not appear on all devices, most notably IE 10 and below. Click the links to view the full graphs)

Using Google Trends

You can opt to compare up to 5 different search terms using Google Trends. In the graph below I have compared three medical conditions: AIDS, flu and Ebola. If you hover your mouse over the graph below you’ll see various numbers appearing. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they represent the total number of searches as the highest number you’ll see is 100. All you need to focus on is the peaks and troughs – the higher the peak the more searches that have been made. If you are interested in what all the numbers mean and how Google calculates them have a look here.

From looking at the graph it is clear to see that searches for AIDS are diminishing, searches for flu consistently fluctuate annually  (with the exception of the 2009 swine flu epidemic) and that Ebola was rarely searched for until 2014 when the outbreak of this deadly disease in Africa started to worry the western world. These are the obvious findings but what else does the graph show us? Have another look.

You’ll see that searches for AIDS has three clearly identifiable peaks in December 2004, December 2005 and December 2006.  Aside from a very small peak in December 2008 the number of searches has virtually flat-lined since 2008. So what caused the peaks in December 2004-2006 and why have the searches slowed? World AIDS Day is held on 1 December of each year and this most likely accounts for the peaks seen in those months. What’s not clear is why there are no similar peaks in all of the following years. Has the funding and marketing of World AIDS Day slowed? Do the organisers feel that they have done enough to promote the causes and effects of AIDS? Do the recent improvements in care for AIDS sufferers mean that there is less need for World AIDS Day? Has the world lost interest in the event? Would adding HIV to the search criteria correlate with this downward trend? All very valid questions and ones that could be posed by the inquisitive student studying AIDS or World AIDS Day.

Popular Searches

Here’s another graph. This time I’m comparing four very popular search terms among teenagers today:

There are no surprises, merely a momentary reminisce of when the world was a Bieber-less place before 2009. The marketing moguls of Xbox will also be pleased to see that most interest in their product is just before Christmas. Anyway, I’m going to add another term to this graph: porn. Before you look at the graph below, consider this: what effect do you think this search term will have on the graph? Are you expecting a small, a little, large or big amount of change? Let’s have a look:

The results astounded me – despite being compared against four very popular searches they pale into insignificance against the term porn. Try pitting the same term against other searches. There are not many terms that beat it and if they do, not many end their line graph on the up, so to speak. Not only is there a strong e-safety message here but it does show the power of Google Trends. Just when you think you are comparing four easily identifiable and recognisable terms (which one imagines would generate a massive amount of searches) there are other terms that are even more popular. Can students find the most popular search terms? Can they identify the peaks and troughs and explain why such variations occur? Can they link news stories to any peaks? Can they extrapolate the graphs predicting how search terms may rise and fall over the next 5-10 years? Google Trends already attempts to extrapolate data for a few months ahead, do students agree with the predictions? Why? There is a whole multitude of questions that can be asked and explored when searching this valuable data.

Comparative Searches

Google Trends is very addictive and often good fun. Once you get past looking up random terms, your own name, favourite songs etc. try focusing on a few comparative terms. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Compare Christmas against Easter. Aside from the obvious annual peaks and troughs, why is there such a gap between these two major Christian festivals?
  • Compare Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP. Did you really expect such a steep-peak for one of these UK political parties in 2012?
  • Compare Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Haydn. Why the surge in 2006?
  • Compare Ford, Fiat, Nissan and Volkswagen. Do the searches reflect annual sales of each companies vehicles?
  • Compare the operating systems: Windows, Mac and Linux. Before you do, see if you can predict the results.

Advanced Functions

Google Trends offers a range of advanced functions such as restricting data to specific countries and cities, related searches and embedding your findings into a webpage as I have done on this blog post. A search for iPhone reveals that London is not the top town/city in England to search for it and that the iPhone 4s was searched for less than its predecessor the iPhone 4. Scroll down the Google Trends screen, underneath the main graph, to access this additional functionality.

Google is not the only Search Engine

Do remember that the results from Google Trends only contain the searches made by people using Google as their search engine. In 2012, 77% of all internet searches were made using Google. Therefore, while the results are of the majority there are some quirks. For example, can you name the second most popular search engine? I couldn’t. It’s Baidu. Nope, I hadn’t heard of it either. It’s China’s search engine and with a lot of searches taking place in China a student trying to study the search terms of the Chinese  is going to get nowhere with Google Trends.

So, just remember that the results are from Google only and while they are fairly representative of the western world, further afield where Google hasn’t quite (or is not allowed to) penetrate the online search market, it is not so reliable.

What are you using Google Trends for?

Have you used it with your students? Have you found any flaws? What revelations have you or your students uncovered? Please ‘join the discussion’ below and have your say.

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