If knowledge is power, then Google is the New York Yankees, CIA and Vitali Klitschko rolled into one. As the internet juggernaut maintains its dominance online, its influence on the physical world is growing thanks to the sheer amount of data it controls.
While one arm of Google is fighting to digitize and sell the field of human knowledge, another arm, Google Trends, is analyzing search terms as raw sociological data. By counting the frequency with which a given search term is entered over time, Google has its finger on our collective pulse.
Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, claims that the real-time data is a more accurate gauge of public behavior than traditional predictors which rely on agèd data to make forecasts. Varian has urged the U.S. government to stop looking at the past to predict the future.
The government, for example, was caught off guard by the popularity of its Cash for Clunker’s program. Google’s data, however, showed a tremendous spike in interest over the length of the program i.e. the number of people searching for the program online was very, very high. Had the government been aware of this data, or so the logic goes, it could have been better equipped to deal with the program’s popularity.
Google Trends is still part of Google Labs, a classification which is given to projects still in the development phase, but already Trends provides a rose-colored window into our collective soul. Keying search terms Sex, Obama and God into Google Trends yields a line graph displaying their popularity as search terms over time. Only during the month of his election was Obama more popular than Sex; since his campaign began in 2008, Obama has been a more popular search term than God.
Google Trends’ current forecast calls for lower unemployment and a rising housing market. Varian reports that fewer people are searching for unemployment benefits online while more frequently searching for affordable housing and real estate agents.