The Problem Using Google Trends for the Democratic Debates

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This year, a new trend seems to be rising and that trend is the use of Google Trends in political analysis. In fact, according to Google Trends, Google Trends search queries gained more popularity around the time of the 1st Democratic Debates, June 26th to June 27th, 2019.

Google Trends Analysis After the Debates

Above, you can see a rise in searching for Google Trends after the Democratic Debates. There’s sure to be a rise in search results after the next round of debates, to0. The media, from USA Today to Business Insider, have been citing Google Trends as though they are sure indicators of the performance of political candidates during a debate. Google Trends even has their own section dedicated to show search results of the candidates during and after the last presidential debate. They created a cool interactive chart you can see below. 

Now that the latest presidential debates are here, I think it’s high time to give some context to Google Trends, its meaning and why search results presented by Google Trends can be hard to determine the intent of the searcher (user).

Google Trends and SEO

As a profession, I am a Search Engine Optimizer (SEO). I spend all day long looking, analyzing, and interpreting search results for marketing. I know a thing or two about search results. I am steeped in search queries on the daily, from using Google Search Console, which shows you what search queries people use to find your website organically (i.e. to find your site on Google) to using Google’s Keyword Planner, which helps you find commonly used keywords to integrate into content to increase rankings on Google’s search engine results page (SERP). 

Google Trends is interesting and fun to look at after a debate, but using this data to determine how well a candidate is doing or did during a debate is not a good indicator of the performance of the candidate. That’s because, with this data, you can’t determine the true intent of the user. Many of these candidates no one has likely heard of and you can easily make the case that many searches were made with the intention of figuring out who the heck some of these people are.

Google Trends is good for analyzing broad topics. You can see trends in search and use that to determine the popularity of a given topic. However, it’s not good at determining the reason of the topics popularity. It’s a source of data without a broader context. Without the knowledge of the user’s intent, then we are left with just a data set.

User intent

User intent is what a user intended with their search. Why they were searching. In SEO terms, user intent is important in determining the right keywords to use to drive traffic to a landing page. There are a range of intentions as to why a user may search.

You can break intentions down into 3 broad categories:

  1. Navigational

  2. Informational

  3. Transactional

After a debate (or during), a person may be typing into Google to learn more about who a candidate is, such as Marianne Williamson. So the intention is informational. Now that we have the broader context, can we use this information to narrow our approach with Google Trends? We can narrow state by state, but we can’t narrow the meaning behind the search. We don’t know the why—the true intention. Was it for information on “who” the candidate is or was it genuine interest based on liking what the candidate had to say? We just don’t know.

Marianna Williamson

That’s where long tail terms or keywords can help. These give us more of an intention behind the searchers motive. A long tail keyword is a chain of words a searcher may use to ask a search engine a question. It can help determine what a searcher’s intent is. Google Trends is not a good source for long tail keywords. Instead, it’s good at showing broadly that some topic is being searched; Google Trends isn’t really saying anything beyond that.

Keyword research, even light keyword research using Google’s autofill feature can help us breakdown some key information… sometimes.

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Using Google Trends to Determine the Success of a Candidate

Using Google Trends to determine the success of a candidate is not a good method as we don’t know the user’s intent. We don’t know if they were just curious or seriously interested in the candidate. Just like length of time is not a complete indicator of who did well during a debate (otherwise Chuck Todd killed it), neither is search results. What truly matters, in the end, is election day. 

Topics do not tell us the intent of the search, they merely tell us that people were searching. Google Trends is a great tool, but when used incorrectly it can confuse the journalist and the reader. 

Jamie Steidle