You can check the site yourself; just point your web browser to the Google Trends home page. If you’re the sort who likes to read the fine manual before you actually get your hands dirty, you’ll want to check out the frequently asked questions page. You can reach it from a link near the bottom of the Google Trends home page labeled “About Google Trends.”
The Google Trends home page itself looks eerily familiar:
I cropped the screen shot in places to fit it as well as I could, but I think you get the idea. What is this, just another search engine? Well, yes and no. It is a search engine of sorts, but it’s a lot more. What Google Trends does is compare the popularity of searches performed for particular terms – over time, over regions, and over languages.
This might best be explained with an example. As you can see, Google offers several in its little box. Let’s look at skiing vs. surfing (a comparison I cut off). Google says you can compare up to five different terms by separating them with commas, but let’s keep it simple for our first search. Google returns a page that looks something like this:
I’m sorry it isn’t clearer, but it will be in a moment, because I’m going to take each part of this page and dissect it for you. So let’s get started.
Okay, if you look in the upper left-hand corner, you see a chart. Here’s a better screen shot that isolates it from the rest of the page:
This is a search volume graph. Naturally enough, it compares the volume of searches done for these two terms over time, as indicated on the gray bar. As you can see, there are actually two separate graphs here. The upper graph focuses on actual searches. The lower graph is the news reference volume graph, which shows how many times those terms have appeared in Google news stories.
Just by looking at this graph, you can tell that searches for the term “skiing” seem to swing much more widely in volume than searches for the term “surfing,” despite the fact that they seem to receive about the same amount of coverage in the news. Looking at the timing, one can surmise that “skiing” is affected much more by the seasons than “surfing.”
Right about now you’re probably wondering about those boxes with letters in them that point to various parts of the graph. They match up with specific news headlines, which can be clicked:
While you can click on the links to follow them, please note that there aren’t any guarantees that the links actually work; even the most recent of the documents listed had expired. Ideally, these stories help you plot the popularity of certain terms, and possibly even how news stories affect that popularity. Here’s how Google explains it in the FAQ: “When Google Trends detects a spike in the volume of news stories for a particular term, it labels the graph and displays the headline of an automatically selected Google News story written near the time of the spike.” Only Google News stories with English language headlines are displayed, but Google plans to expand that to non-English headlines in the future.
You probably noticed a couple of drop-down menus labeled “All Regions” and “All years.” Those are the defaults, but they can be changed. The Regions list gives you a dizzying number of options, from Australia to Zimbabwe. Put in “Australia,” for example, and you’ll start seeing spikes for skiing in the middle of the year – it may be summer in the US, but it’s winter down under then. Depending on the region, Google might not have news references available, if that matters to you. (Changing the Region also changes the other chart, which I’ll get to later in this article).
The drop-down menu labeled “All years” lets you look at information for a single year – or even a single month. As with making changes to the Regions drop-down, changing the time frame drop-down affects everything. How does that affect what Google shows you? “When you restrict your results to a specific year or multi-year period, each point on the graph will represent a week’s worth of searches. When you restrict the results to a specific month, each point on the graph will represent one day of searches.”
Okay, you’re probably wondering about that bar graph now. Here’s a better shot of it:
Again, apologies for the truncation; this chart normally shows the top ten under each tab. If you haven’t spotted the SEO uses for this tool up to now, you should be flooded with ideas just from this chart alone. Maybe not this specific chart (though I love what it implies about the folks in Dublin – they go for the gusto whatever the season), but certainly other comparisons would be very helpful depending on your clients.
To take an example out of a hat, let’s say you’re trying to optimize a web site for a computer electronics dealer located in New York City. The client wants to push its line of notebook computers. But what term is more popular for this product, notebook or laptop? Using this tool, you can find out not only which term is in more general use, but which term is more popular in your client’s home region. Doesn’t that sound like it would be a huge help when trying to optimize your client’s site?
So how does Google figure out which are the top cities, regions, and languages for particular terms? How do those tabs work anyway? Well, Google Trends looks at a sample of all Google searches to determine the top cities for your first term. Then, for those cities, it calculates the ratio of searches for each city based on the total searches it received from the same city. The bar charts represent the ratios. Google can determine city and region by using IP address information from its server logs. For language information, Google simply looks at the language version of the Google site on which the search was entered.
Because we’re dealing in ratios, it’s worth remembering that the information you see on these charts is relative. As Google puts it, “just because a particular region isn’t in the Top Regions list for the term ‘haircut’ doesn’t necessarily mean that people there have decided to stage a mass rebellion against society’s conventions.” There could be any number of reasons for that, including that residents of that region perform so many searches for other topics that searches for “haircut” make up a tiny percentage, especially when compared to other regions.
As I’ve already mentioned, you can compare up to five terms in Google Trends by separating them with commas. So if you’re comparing trends for notebooks and laptops, you enter notebook, laptop, and click on “Search Trends.” Or you can compare a whole string; as you can see in the first screen shot, one of the examples Google uses compares four terms, blue, red, yellow, green.
What if you don’t want to compare particular terms as much as gauge interest? Perhaps you’re interested in seeing how many searches were done that contained either of two terms. In that case, you’d put in the two terms and separate them with a pipe (vertical bar): notebook | laptop.
What if you’re using multi-word terms, as many searches do? In that case, you need to use parentheses. So a search comparing bathing suits and bikinis would go in as (bathing suit), bikini. This is particularly important when using the pipe. If you searched for bathing suit | bikini, Google Trends will interpret that to mean you want to see all searches for “bathing suit” and “bathing bikini,” which is nonsense (especially considering how rarely most bikinis ever hit the water!).
Just as with the main search engine, you can restrict your searches by including a minus sign before a particular term. If you’re interested in seeing how many searches included the term “ephemera,” which often refers to antique paper items, but you want to exclude old maps, you can enter ephemera –maps.
Another tool that carries over from the main search engine is quotation marks. If you want to see results that contain only your terms in the specific order you’ve entered them, use quotation marks. Google Trends defaults to showing you all searches containing the terms you entered, in any order. That could change the meaning significantly for certain terms! It is worth noting, though, that the news portion of Google Trends doesn’t support these advanced features (quotation marks, minus signs, or vertical bars) – at least, not yet.
There is also a discussion group for Google Trends. All in all, this looks like a very promising and potentially powerful tool. You should find it well worth trying out.