Using Google Trends for news story

Google Trends is an useful tool for journalists to gauge public sentiment especially on current affairs or breaking news. It shows you the search traffic of phrases and topics on Google search engine.

I usually use Google Trends to check the search traffic of relevant phrases after a news broke out. The results help me and my team to understand what people are interested in at that point of time. Sometimes the results themselves are the story.

After the Washington Post story about the British were “frantically Googling what the EU is” right after voting for the Brexit, I did more digging on Google Trends and found that a strong sense of regret among British as the searches for phrases like “second referendum” and “second referendum petition” have seen a spike in traffic. Then I did this quick story on the findings.

I have also been monitoring the search traffic of anti-Muslim phrases after every terrorist attack.

However, Google Trends has its problem especially when it is used for journalism. Its results do not show the absolute number, i.e. the number of users searching the phrases, but the search traffic relative to that of another phrase. For example, you could see the search traffic of a particular phrase has tripled but you wouldn’t know whether the traffic has grown from 100 to 300 users or one to three millions.

My solution to this problem is to include a popular search phrase that has a consistent traffic as a reference point. So far I found the phrase “weather forecast” to be a good reference point (share with me if you have a better phrase!). You can see how I used it in the first chart in the post-Brexit story. It is also embedded below.

Other important points when using Google Trends in news story – always explain to your readers how it works and don’t overinterpret the results.