Using Google Search Data to Read 2009's Tea Leaves

Why I Now Base Predictions on Numbers, Rather Than Gut

By Published on .

When I first started blogging five years ago, I was big into writing new year prediction posts. Many bloggers continue this fine tradition. I stopped when I realized that no one would go back and fact check me. More important, I stopped because the predictions were based on gut feelings, not numbers.

Steve Rubel
Photo: JC Bourcart
Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP-director of insights for Edelman Digital.

With that, sometime last year I resolved instead to form observations using data. The numbers then lead me to insights and directional trends.

Enter Google Insights for Search, which launched last year. It's the closest thing we have to a global time capsule.

Often overlooked, there's so much you can learn from digging into aggregate query data. Given its huge share and the prevalence of search in our lives, Google actually knows more about us than our own mothers. Every day we confide in it. We share what we think, hope and fear. The data is absolutely invaluable and the archive goes back five years.

With that in mind, using Google Insights I crunched some data and spotted three internet trends. These are simply thought-starters as we start the new year (all figures are U.S. only).

  • We're growing comfortable with social networks. Not surprisingly, social-network-related searches grew 178% in 2008. Historically the top searches in the category have reflected privacy concerns and last year was no different. The top keywords included "hide friends" (No. 7) and "hide comments" (No. 8). However, search volume on these keywords actually declined last year. This, perhaps, is the biggest indicator that as a nation we're becoming more comfortable living on social networks.

  • Blogging may be making a comeback. Searches related to blogging resources and services posted 64% growth in 2004. Then they basically flat-lined the next three years. However, in 2008 they climbed 24%. It's highly likely that both the growth in 2004 and 2008 was fueled by elections. But my gut is that something deeper is going on here. Perhaps some see blogs as a powerful personal branding tool that can help them weather the recession. Searches for the keywords "personal brand" are also up significantly.

  • The recession drove consumers to shop online. Perhaps surprisingly, shopping-related searches grew 50% year-over-year in the fourth quarter. Of course, between 2004 and 2007, search volume typically reached the same apex in December. But this year was different. Consumers were also looking for deals. Coupon-related searches grew 61% in fourth quarter. If consumers continue to find deals online, then the trend could stick.

Insights without data are useless and, of course, Google is just one indicator. But it's the best tool that we have and a good way to gauge where the wind will blow in 2009. It will be fun to watch to see how this all evolves and to see if any of this is right.

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