Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Visualize Online Information Trends Over Time And Geographical Regions: Google Trends

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The latest tool from Google is an online application that enables users to explore Google database of search queries and news headlines. It is possible to find out and compare the latest trends in Google searches and immediately see how or when the online news media have provided coverage on those specific issues.


You can insert various terms and compare their popularity on Google, obtaining graphs to visually understand the level of interest that Google users have towards the selected topics. Announced during the last Google Press Day, Google Trends provides a well-organized and easy graphing for the volume of search queries and news references over time, by city, regions, languages and so on. Currently being under development and thus only available for English language users, Google Trends sports the usual no-frills branded interface.

Google Trends could become an ally of content writers that need to understand the global relevance of a topic at first glance. Moreover, ICT and e-commerce professionals can check the popularity of a certain product or service by seeing how many Google searches have been performed on that item.


At first, Google Trends would surely look familiar to those users that know the Google Zeitgeist digest, a monthly report published by Google which includes a detailed list of the most popular searches. The original plan for Google Zeitgeist, as the philosophical meaning of the word suggests, was to give a clear picture of how society evolves and the background of a certain era. Using Google Trends is free and does not require any download or Gmail account.

Data-mining made smooth and quick - Mining through the database and getting the data graphs is easy and only takes a minimum effort: just type the terms you want to investigate in the search box and let Google Trends create the graphs - as easy as using any other search engine.

Discover the volume of news and web searches - After you have entered your chosen terms into the search box, you will be presented with two graph. The upper graph represents the volume of the selected terms: how many times they've been searched on Google during recent years. The lower graph indicates how many times the news media have addressed the selected issue. A news writer or a well informed citizen can immediately observe how issues get in the media agenda: the bird-flu scaremongering by news services has never been so clear!

Organize the trends, time and space-wise - Once the results are displayed, you can refine and contextualize them both geographically and chronologically, through the use of drop-down menus and navigation tabs. Your graphs can span from 2004 to the present day and be divided on a monthly basis.

A way to compare different topics - There's actually a limit of five terms that you can compare. Each one must be separated by a comma. In this way, Google Trends analyzes the topics and compares them. Google Trends uses colors wisely and assigns a different color to each of the trend-lines on the graphs. You can instantly recognize the different topics you have searched.

Cross-references: hot headlines and searches - On the right side of the screen there is an indexed column of the most important headlines that, over the selected timeline, have had the major impact on Google users' interest: each news fact, addressed with a clear capital letter, is layered over the volume graphs, right on the trend lines. In this way, you can see exactly how news have influenced global Google use.

See what's hot, where's hot - Google Trends shows you the ten cities, regions and language-areas where your selected term has been searched the most. On the lower part of the screen, right under the graphs, you will see a box which briefly sorts three different lists. Each list corresponds to three criteria used by Google Trends to organize the distribution of the most searched terms: cities, regions and languages.


As you enter a term in the search box, the lists automatically update with the geographical relevance of the searched topics. This interesting feature can be used to explore the geographical distribution of popular searched terms. A function that's useful either if you want to improve your awareness on global and local issues or just check which celebrity gets the most Google searches in your area.

Just a glimpse of Google huge archive - Even if Google Trends gives you access to all of that, the creators of the service state clearly that "it is based upon just a portion of our searches, and several approximations are used when computing your results". This means that you cannot do some ego-searching on Google Trends unless you're really famous: Google Trends keeps track only of the most popular and relevant searches that have been done through Google on a global scale.

Which are the users that could maximize their productivity thanks to Google Trends?

Marketing professionals - Google Trends could satisfy the needs of marketers. BusinessOnline has to say: "This service is really useful for those working on AdWords and shows the latest market trends with simple comparisons" (adapted from Italian). Google Trends data-graphing is remarkable if you want to see how two different services or products are advancing and how interesting they sound to the global audience (i.e. iPod multimedia players Vs Creative Zen digital jukeboxes).

News writers and news hunters - Professionals working in news-reporting could get a broad view over the extension of geopolitical and economical topics. Michael Totten has found that the overwhelming majority of the Google searches for Osama bin Laden, the most wanted criminal in the USA, are made from Egypt.

Political marketing - Google Trends can be used by the so-called "spin doctors of politics", those communications expert that maneuver the whole propaganda machine during elections. You can check the popularity of single politicians, or parties, and use the extra load of information to plan your campaign at best. Take a look, for example, to Silvio Berlusconi and nowadays Prime Minister Romano Prodi, leaders of the two main coalitions in italian politics and arch-rivals during the Italy's 2006 general elections: you'll find out that right after the vote, the Internet users' interest in Romano Prodi skyrocketed and that Berlusconi is more searched on Google by people living in Rome than by those living in Bologna.

How does Google Trends provide all of the above benefits to professionals?

Provides comparison of services and products - Assuming that you want to inquire Google Trends about the online popularity of a product or a service, this tool is going to be a strong ally. Taking for granted that Google is the most popular search engine in the world, you can use Google Trends to see when and where, through time and space, a start-up social network service like Facebook, extremely appreciated by American college students, is getting so popular. On the other hand, you can compare Facebook with MySpace, Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp virtual community, and understand that Facebook is a small threat to MySpace. This easy comparison process fits any other pair of products and services, thus greatly improving the versatility of Google Trends.

Displays how global phenomena are growing - Many people are saying that VoIP and IPTV technologies are the key for a real global revolution, for both consumers and investors. It could be true, and Google Trends unlocks access to some clear graphs that say much more than just words: information on VoIP is clearly getting more searched, while interest on IPTV still seems low. Google's latest tool is useful if you're interested in a broad view of world's worst problems: alas, as of March 2006, it's somehow disappointing to see that plastic surgery is relatively more searched than the malaria epidemic, hurricanes and global warming.


...But it is also great for fun - What do tax evasion, hangover cures, and the band U2 have in common? The highest percentage of searches performed on Google for each of these comes from Ireland. Who is the most popular rapper in the USA, according to the number of Google searches? In this example, you can see the comparison between 50 Cent and Eminem in the United States region. As the Linux expert and AJAX programmer Jeremy Geelan claims in his blog, Google Trends is "addictive", and it's such a "populist surefire techno-hit" that "there really isn't any limit to the number of searches one can do while still assuring oneself that it is diligent journalistic research".

Disappointing downsides - First of all, the absence of scales and numerical references to quantify the data shown. The user doesn't know the number of searches that have been made over the selected topics. Eric Mattson from MarketingMonger, for example, has made it clear that

"Google Trends reminds me of Alexa, it provides uncertain data in a pretty graph and people thus believe that it's accurate".

As stated on the disclaimer at the bottom of the Google Trends front page, the graphs are "based upon just a portion of our searches, and several approximations are used when computing your results. Please keep this in mind when using it".

Searched terms must be 100% accurate, or the resulting graphs will surely get scrambled and wrong. For example, Steve Rubel suggests on his blog that Google Trends made him discover how "interest in blogs and RSS is much higher than in podcasting and wikis". Although, by changing the search strings "from "podcasting, blogs, RSS, wikis into "podcast, blog, RSS, wiki", you get completely different results.

Although catchy and highly entertaining, it really seems like this instrument cannot be used beyond a certain extent. The lack of precise numerical info makes Google Trends extremely unfit for academic use: as the official FAQ specifies, "you probably don't want to write your PhD dissertation based on this information".

There's room for improvement - Since Google Trends is still an experiment more than anything else, Google team will hopefully update it in response to feedback from the users.

To try Google Trends, you must simply visit the official homepage. More information is available through the official Google FAQ, which sports a section regarding the terms of use for this product.

Robin Good and Tommaso Lombardi -
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posted by on Thursday, May 25 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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