If you research the business-to-business industry on Google Trends, you will find that behind “B2B,” the related search term “B2B socialmediagroup” falls next on the list in terms of popularity.
After a little exploration, however, you will discover that the graph spiked in popularity during 2012. And after a bit more hunting, you will inevitably be led to a website that hasn’t been updated in over a year, SocialMediaGroup.com.
But let’s take a closer look at what “b2b socialmediagroup” and another simple search term, “japan,” does – and doesn’t – tell us about search term popularity.
We Don’t Know Search Volume
Under the “Related searches” tab in Google Trends, a number of terms come up for every industry and search term, and they are all ranked according to “popularity.” But how exactly does Google Trends define popularity?
Unfortunately, we don’t exactly know. Like Google’s search algorithm, this formula is kept top secret. What we do know, however, is that Trends data is normalized. In other words, Google has divided search data by a common variable “to cancel out the variable’s effect on the data.”
This tool shows us the relative popularity of search terms based on regions, which means that two regions with vastly different populations and search volumes may display the same popularity ranking in Google Trends.
The downside to this normalization is that the data produced from this tool can be one-sided or even distorted. For instance, the top regions that search for “Japan” happen to be Laos, Cambodia, and Burma (Myanmar) – three countries with some of the worst internet infrastructure in the world. In Burma, for instance, only 1% of the country actually has internet access.
Exploring the results for the search term “Japan” clearly demonstrates a couple things:
Google doesn’t account for data distortion. In other words, there are a number of outside factors that can distort the results: population size, native language, internet adoption rates, communications infrastructure, economy, and so forth. Which ones does Google account for in its computation? We don’t know.
Trends data must be taken with a spoonful of salt. By cancelling out search volume data, Google Trends limits the accuracy, and therefore the usefulness, of the data it generates. For instance, a popularity spike in a country with one million people could rank higher than a popularity spike in a country with 200 million.
How well are the terms related? While the business-to-business industry clearly has relationship to search terms that include “b2b,” we can also clearly see that many of these terms aren’t that popular at all. “B2B socialmediagroup” has been completely flat for over a year, yet Trends data suggests this is the most relevant and popular industry search term next to “B2B.” Business marketing, on the other hand, has a much higher average popularity, yet doesn’t appear in the business-to-business industry tab.
Now, we don’t want to sound too harsh. No algorithm is perfect, and Google Trends will continue to evolve and improve over time. And despite certain deficiencies, Google Trends can still be of some use to us.
How Can We Use Google Trends for Market Research?
None of the Google Trends trends can be taken at face value. But since the popularity of Google searches so closely relates to real-world interests, learning to use Google Trends can provide valuable insights into our markets and marketing efforts.
Google does tell us geographic information. Google Trends data provides us with geo-location data, which can be aligned with our marketing efforts. When popularity spikes in our target regions, in other words, we can, to an extent, rely on that data. But even though we don’t receive search volume information, we can use a bit of outside research to supplement Trends data to create a more meaningful picture.
We can compare search terms. Though we can’t see search volumes directly, we can see the relative popularity of search terms and their evolution over time. A simple comparison of SEO and content marketing reveals that despite content marketing’s rise to prominence in recent years, SEO still wins in terms of popularity.
With a little creativity, we may be able to gather some ballpark search volumes, especially when we use third-party tools such as the Google AdWords Keyword Planner to generate that data.
Google Trends does show us the history of terms’ popularity. It also provides news stories that hit on that exact date, which are usually tied directly to the spike in popularity. The search term “Japan” naturally has spikes during major world events, such as sporting events or the natural disasters. This type of correlation can help us identify a causal relationship between our chosen term and real-world events.
The search terms “japan” and “b2b socialmediagroup” don’t tell us everything about how Google Trends computes its data, but it does tell us the limitations of the tool and how we should use the tool in our marketing research.