Google Trends: Peer Into Google’s Database Of Searches

Now live via Google Labs is a new
Google Trends service, announced today as
part of Google
Press Day
. The service allows you to tap into Google’s database of searches,
to determine what’s popular. For example, do a trends query on
cars, and you can see the volume
of queries over time, by city, regions, languages and so on.

Let’s take a single search first and go through the motions. A query on
ipod gives
a chart going back through January 2004, which is as far back as Google Trends
data goes. You can see spikes in searches, and these are often labeled with
letters that lead to related news items. Google says it is using similar
technology to do this as it does with company price charts in
Google
Finance
.

Below the chart, you get some geographical and regional data. For example,
you’ll see most iPod searches are happening in New York, then in Irvine, then
San Francisco, London and so on. That’s the city data. Next is a Regional
option, which gives you a breakdown by country (iPod searches are big in the UK
then the US and Australia). Finally, you can narrow by language (Most searches
for iPod are done in English, then Japanese).

Want to narrow in? You can do a variety of things. Using the drop down boxes,
you can pick a particular month, such as
last month.
You can also pick a particular region, like
last month
just in the United States
.

You aren’t limited to single words. Enter multiple words by commas to do
comparisons, such as

google,yahoo,microsoft
. That query shows you each term in a different color,
and you can then see all the breakdowns for each word, as well. You can do up to
five words in total. Want to do multiword queries? There’s ways to do that —
check out the help page
for more.

Sometimes when you do a search, you’ll get something like this

message
:

Your terms – larry page – do not have enough search volume to show graphs.

What’s happening here is that Google’s working to help protect search
privacy. There’s a slight chance someone might enter something like their own
name along with something embarrassing or private. Potentially, Google Trends
could reveal this information.

My Private
Searches Versus Personally Identifiable Searches
article explains this issue
more, and it’s something Google used
successfully to
argue
against handing over query data to the US Department Of Justice. Given
this, it needed to put some protections into place. That mechanism is to only
show data about queries that happen often.

"Something has to be in the hundreds of times per week for you to see
trends," said Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products & user
experience, about the service. This is also
touched on in the help
page on the Google Trends site.

Some things to keep in mind. For example, Mayer cited to me a

yankees,red socks
comparison. Searches for Yankees are well above the Red
Socks, so they must be more popular! Well, it’s also a case that there are more
people in New York than Boston, so there are more people potentially searching
for the Yankees.

(Postscript: So I’m an idiot — it’s Red Sox, of course. And

yankees,red sox
for 2006 shows Red Sox actually much closer to Yankees. So
cop-out time, the point in general remains valid. There are things that can skew
the stats in ways you might not expect. For example, if you search for a
particular company and you see growth in their name, are they more popular? In
2005, you might think so
for
Kryptonite
. But go broader, you’ll see a spike
in 2004
associated with the Kryptonite locks-can-be-picked-by-ballpoint-pin-fiasco. That
incident might have helped fuel some of the rise in following year — searches
that aren’t necessarily reflecting a popular view of the company).

Another caveat. The geographic data is based on IP
targeting, which isn’t perfect. In particular, people who use AOL are often seen
as if they are in Virginia, regardless of their true location.

How about query spam? Google’s got a system designed to
help filter for this, either if intentionally done or accidentally. For example,
if it sees many queries all coming from the same IP address, that might be
caught. Similarly, if it sees many queries coming from different cookies, it
could be caused by the same person who rejects standing cookies. Each search
would generate a new cookie, so potentially the same single person might be seen
as different individuals.

"We are savvy to that case and make sure we saw queries from 100 different
unique cookies that aren’t fresh," she said.

Also, the data isn’t filtered or consolidated in the way things happen in
Google Zeitgeist or other
search data
mining tools
. In other words,
car brings
back different results than
cars. And
if you want to see the dark underbelly of search, you can see in
sex,ipod
that if Apple sold a sexPod, it would leave iPod in the dust. You can also
search for explicit adult terms, should you have the hankering.

Finally, Google rightly
warns
that this is more a play thing that something you can use for
definitive predictions of popularity.

For a different spin on Google Trends, check out Barry’s post,
Fun With Google
Trends
. Now that we’ve warned you not to take the data too seriously, time
for some comparisons anyway :)

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