What is the world searching for? Google Trends can tell you. Its FAQ notes that while the data reflects the searches made every day, “it can also reflect irregular search activity, such as automated searches or queries that may be associated with attempts to spam our search results.” Google Trends has “mechanisms in place to detect and filter irregular activity,” but it retains these searches for security purposes.
Doing a Google Trends Search
Ready to do some exploration? Once on the homepage, you can enter a search term and then filter it by country or expand it worldwide. (If you are interested in information about search results focused on a particular state, metro area, or city, you will have to first select the country and then scroll down to “Interest by subregion.”) You can expand the search period to 2004–present, input a custom time range, or use the options to limit the period to the past 5 years, 12 months, 90 days, 30 days, or 7 days, as well as the past day, past 4 hours, or past hour. You can further filter results using categories that include Arts & Entertainment, Finance, Health, Real Estate, and Travel. Related topics and related queries are also listed. Interested in learning more about, say, search trends related to shopping? You can choose to limit your search to a particular Google property: Web Search, Image Search, News Search, Google Shopping, and YouTube Search.
As an example, I decided to try the Web Search option and looked up a company with a store located right down the street from where I live. While checking out state results, I saw a graph labeled “Interest over time” that showed spikes to indicate the popularity of my search over the past few days. Choosing to filter the result for the metro Detroit region and marking the box for “Include low search volume regions,” I focused my attention on both Ann Arbor and a neighboring city, Ypsilanti. I was surprised to find that Ypsilanti was listed as #47, compared to Ann Arbor at #65, for searches that had occurred in the last 7 days. Gasoline and gift cards ranked high in “Related topics,” while “Related queries” showed that the store’s reward program ranked highly. Based on the information I gathered, I wondered if this tool would be of special interest to those involved in competitive intelligence. Could it be that the information provided under “Related topics” indicated the company’s most popular products?
Unable to verify the sales data, I conducted another search to determine what the results would look like from those who searched using the Google Shopping limiter. While I was surprised to find that Howell, Mich., was listed as number one for those searching for the company name, I was disappointed to see that no information was listed in the “Related topics” and “Related queries.” Google Trends provided a message that the search I conducted didn’t have enough data to display and suggested I ensure that the spelling was correct or use a more general term.
If you are interested in regularly running a specific search and don’t want to re-create it each time, you can use the subscription feature. After selecting “Subscriptions” located on the top left of the page via a drop-down list, you will be prompted to click on the plus sign on the bottom right of the page to add a subscription that will provide updates via email about “noteworthy events.” After you type in a search term or a topic that is of interest to you, you can choose to limit the search to a specific region and decide how often to receive email alerts.
Positives and Negatives
Looking to learn more about how Google Trends is being used by others, I went to the main Google search engine to find Google Trends use cases. In a 2017, yet still relevant, TechRepublic article, “5 Ways to Use Google Trends for Work,” author Andy Wolber says, “Google Trends can help you measure brand popularity, prepare for a business trip, identify new markets, track tech trends, and communicate more clearly.” For example, before going on a business trip, you could use Google Trends to learn about topics that might be important to people at your destination.
“The Use of Google Trends in Health Care Research: A Systemic Review,” a 2014 PLOS ONE article, aimed to study “health care literature using Google Trends to classify articles by topic and study aim; evaluate the methodology and validation of the tool; and address limitations for its use in research.” The authors conclude that “Google Trends holds potential as a free, easily accessible means to access large population search data to derive meaningful insights about population behavior and its link to health and health care.” But, they continue, “to be reliably utilized as a research tool, it would have to be more transparent, which will increase the trustworthiness of both the results generated and its general applicability for health care research.” A 2020 study used Google Trends “to assess the impact of global public health days on online health information seeking behaviour in Central and South America,” so the tool continues to be useful for some researchers.
In “What Google Trends Teaches Us About When to Trust Data,” an August 2019 article on the SEMrush blog, Chris Lewis notes that it’s up to users to ensure that the data they’re collecting is represented correctly and fairly. “For content to be able to succeed on the internet, we need to be able to trust it. As content marketers or anyone who cares about data, we have a responsibility to use tools like Trends wisely and honestly.” He offers three tips for using Google Trends accurately: “Don’t compare apples to oranges,” “stay transparent,” and “understand the sample you are working with.”
How might you use Google Trends?