March 07, 2009

Google Trends

Google Trends is a marvellous toy!

For those of you who don't know, Google Trends is a tool that allows you to get an idea of how often a word has been searched for since 2004. More precisely, it plots the search frequency of the term relative to its average frequency, over time. In other words, you type a search term, hit enter, and you can see at what moments in the last few years people on the Internet have been searching a lot for that term. For example, if you type "umbrella", you get the following graph:

Google Trends: Umbrella

In this case, there's a clear peak in 2007, when Rihanna's hit 'Umbrella' came out, and everyobody went online to search for the lyrics.

I've been playing around with Google Trends and have discovered a few things I thought I'd share with you. Now, usually when you search for something, it returns a chaotic graph with no clear trends, apart from a spike here and there. But if you know what to search for, you can get some pretty neat results.

First, the yearly cycles. The obvious ones are words like "Christmas", "Easter", "Valentine's Day", "Talk Like A Pirate Day", etc., which obviously peak at a very specific point every year. The word "gift" also peaks in December. More generally, when searching for other typical presents, there are usually more hits before and after Christmas. Words like "gloves" and "snow" are a lot more prominent in winter, whereas the graphs for words like "sunglasses" and "bicycles" are higher in summer. All this sounds a bit dull and rather obvious, but the amazing thing is how similar the years look. For example, "cheap flights" are above average in the summer, with a peak in July, and then decline all the way to December, before experiencing a sharp rise just after Christmas, before settling down to average. And it's like that every year! Try some other words out for yourself (More on "cheap flights" further down).

Second, there are the increasing curves. These are when you search for companies or phenomena that have gained more and more popularity over the years. Examples include Hotmail, Gmail, Wikipedia, XKCD, YouTube and iTunes (the last one incidentally also happens to peak around Christmas). The graph I'll include here is the one for Facebook, because it is such a perfect illusration of an exponantial curve. Makes you wonder if the Facebook succes is going to keep increasing like this. I'd like to point out that the MySpace curve is nowhere this neat.

Google Trends: Facebook

Other Internet phenomena and memes can also be explored in the same way. For instance, "2girls1cup" has a peak in late 2007, and so do all its alternate spellings. You can also get a pretty good estimate of different animes' popularity, and compare them. Or see how HappyTreeFriends searches have declined in recent years. Loads of possibilities.

Now, we get to the point where I'll explain why I went on Google Trends in the first place: to see if there were any early signs of the actual economical crisis. The short answer is 'not really'. "Financial crisis" doesn't kick in until late 2008. Economic depression only appears beginning of 2008, dies out in the summer, and comes back about the same time as "financial crisis", when everyone suddenly woke up and realised that the economy would lie in ruins within a few months. Searches for "unemployment" started in 2008. "Recession" is slightly more indicative: something started happening in mid-2007, and then in 2008 it immediately went berserk. That's better, but still not early enough to be noteworthy. "Cheap flights" (mentioned earlier) has been steadily decreasing since 2004, because people have had less money to go on holidays I presume, but the decline has been too slow to make people aware of the looming crisis. "Debt" has stayed average over the years, and is of no use whatsoever. So much for the warning signs. As my IQE lecturer said: "No-one, and I mean no-one, could have predicted this crisis." And he said it without realising the obvious corollary: Macroeconomics doesn't work.

Now, what surprised me is what happened when I searched for "Great Depression". I was expecting a curve that would suddenly skyrocket in 2008. This is what I got:

Google Trends: Great Depression

Of course, there's a clear boost summer 2008, but what about the years before that? Yearly cycles?! Are people more predisposed to search for "Great Depression" in spring?? Why is there always a minimum during the summer? Even the quick drop-and-rise around Christams appears every year! I have absolutely no idea why the search history looks so repetitive, but it must mean something. Any ideas?

Anyway, try out Google Trends for yourself, it's great fun. And maybe, in a few years, it'll have become an important research tool... Who knows?

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