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Google Trends Now Shows the Web’s Obsessions in Real Time

GOOGLE TRENDS HAS long been a tool for journalists tracking what people wanted to know about in the recent past. The function hasn’t changed, but the tense has: Trends now tracks stories in real time, giving unfettered access to what the Internet wants to know in the moment.



Trends had been largely unchanged since 2012, a helpful but slightly backdated look at subjects people were searching for over the last day or more. As of today, you can see minute-by-minute information culled from the 100 billion searches that take place on Google at any given month. Not only that, but Trends now pulls in information from Google News and YouTube, for a fuller view of what people want to know.

In many ways, insight into what people are searching for is even more powerful than what they already know, says Steve Grove, head of Google’s News Lab.

“Social media data focuses on what people are talking about publicly. Search data goes a layer deeper than that, in some ways, to what people are really interested in.” Grove tells to WIRED. “When you’re searching, you’re not really editing yourself. You find out what people are really interested in. It’s very real, very raw, very personal.”

It also highlights the distance between what’s being reported and what people want to know; if you already have a good read on the Nest Cam, you’re less likely to use Google to find additional information about it. That in turn helps explains why real-time trends can be so illuminating. There’s a much larger curiosity gap on breaking news—when there are still plenty of unknowns to to the media as well—and, say, the state of the Republican primary race.

While that may appear to make Google Trends a sort of populist news ticker—showing what people are genuinely interested in versus what a newsroom bestows importance on—Trends doesn’t quite work that way. Rather than pure volume, it tracks surges of interest relative to how much those items usually generate. “We’re looking for spikes in particular topic areas that we then normalize,” explains Grove. “You can imagine if it was just volume overall, you’d see the same sort of topics every day.” That’s why headliners like the NBA Finals sit alongside less obvious hits like the Alameda County Fair in the top 10 “trending stories” as of this writing.

The new Google Trends also goes well beyond just headlines, though many of the features are just cleaner, more detailed versions of what was previously available. You can still access handy charts comparing how various search terms have fared over time, just now with minute-by-minute granularity. A “featured stories” section displays search data pre-sorted in a variety of visually grabby ways. A series of regularly updated data sets provide pre-packaged looks at everything from how interest in MERS and Ebola has evolved to which Copa America teams are the most search-engine sought-after. And the whole page has gotten a healthy dollop of material design.

If you’re a journalist or a researcher, the benefits of insight into what people want to know right nowshould be self-evident; you’re probably already tinkering. Even if you’re not, though, it’s worth touring the new Google Trends for the fun visualizations, sure, but also for a look at where the Internet is out of step with the news. Or maybe just a quick rundown of what’s going on in Alameda County; I hear they’ve got a great fair lined up.

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