For many Britons, the morning of June 24th was a rude awakening.
It was the day after the so-called Brexit vote, in which 52 percent of United Kingdom voters voted to leave the European Union.
As if the day wasn’t bad enough for the 48 percent who voted to remain in the E.U., the country had to face an array of headlines from the international media — including the Washington Post, NPR, and Fortune — seemingly questioning British voters’ knowledge about what they were even voting on.
These stories referenced information from Google Trends, a tool from the search giant that shows data about how heavily a topic is being Googled. On the morning after the vote, Google Trends tweeted information profiling what people in the U.K. were searching for in light of the results.
— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) June 24, 2016
Notably, and embarrassingly, “What does it mean to leave the EU?” and “What is the EU?” were the top two questions being Googled about the E.U. within the U.K. in the hours after the vote.
This information inspired headlines such as “After Brexit Vote, Britain Asks Google: “’What Is The EU?,’” and “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it.”. The latter story, from the Post, made it to the top of Memeorandum, a news aggregating site that ranks stories by importance and popularity. Many other American news outlets published similar stories.
Such headlines seemed to suggest that it was only after a long, divisive campaign and nation-wide vote that the people of the U.K. decided to learn something about what they were actually voting on. Articles painted a picture of large portions of the U.K. population thinking “What was all of this about again? What are the consequences?” As it turns out, that picture is dubious. While Google Trends presents trends and patterns, it leaves parts of the story to be told.
In Google’s own words, Google Trends was built with journalists in mind. It can be a powerful reporting tool for journalists wanting to gauge public interest on a topic or to gain insight into what’s on people’s minds and how they feel. When people have questions that they don’t want to or can’t ask others, they intuitively turn to a search engine.
As a result, the tool makes it easy to see what information people are looking for around major global events. That’s what led Brian Fung, the tech reporter who authored the popular Post article, to check Google Trends after the vote.
“Google Trends gives people an idea of what people are searching for,” Fung told MediaFile. “Because so many people use Google, the market share is so high.”
Since Google released Trends in 2006, news organizations have tried their hands at using the service’s tangible data to explore questions that have global consequences as well as smaller, personal dilemmas.
The Washington Post has used the tool to try to find out what times of the year people are most depressed and revealed that people look for hangover cures on New Year’s Day more than any other day (surprise, surprise).
The New York Times has explored people’s religious thoughts as well as how closely Google searches for a presidential candidate on a state’s primary election day compare to the candidate’s actual vote share. The are many other examples out there.
But while Google Trends does show if there’s an uptick in people Googling a certain topic, there’s usually not enough information to draw definite conclusions about large populations. That’s because Google Trends presents data in the form of an index. It shows a topic’s search popularity relative to other topics. It doesn’t show exactly how many people searched for a certain term. This prompted some criticisms about the way journalists interpreted the Google Trends data on Brexit questions.
“Would it be much nicer if Google had absolute numbers to share? Sure,” Fung said “But in the absence of that, it seems inaccurate to say that very few people were Googling ‘what is the EU?’”
In the case of Brexit, while it’s clear that basic questions about the vote were more popular immediately after the vote, there are several variables:
- How many people were searching these things? In a country of 65 million people, a few thousand searches on a topic don’t necessarily represent broad trends.
- Who was submitting these searches? Was it people who chose not to vote? Ineligible residents? Tourists? Without this information, one can’t assess the U.K. voting population’s knowledge about Brexit.
- Why were they searching? While it’s possible that many voters knew little about the referendum, it’s still conceivable for an informed voter to simply try to learn more by Googling basic questions like “What does it mean to leave the EU?” After all, Google is a search engine, not an answer engine.
Fung noted that, while Google Trends doesn’t show the absolute volume of searches for a specific term, comparing that term to another, generally more popular term, is telling.
Per Fung’s suggestion, here’s what happens when U.K. searches for “What is the EU?” are pegged to searches relating to television personality Kim Kardashian on the day after the vote:
Kardashian is often used as the gold standard of comparison in Google Trends because of how popular searches for the celebrity are. The data suggest that, for a brief moment in June, people in the U.K. were thinking more about their country’s place in the world than they were about Kardashian.
“It tells us that there are a substantial number of people who were searching that [Brexit] relative to other time periods,” Fung said. “You can get a sense of the magnitude of those searches by comparing them other searches.”
Google is a popular place for people to satisfy their curiosity. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage for journalists using Google Trends. It’s a way for them to see what people are thinking about, but without knowing what sort of people are thinking about something or why they’re thinking about it.
In the age of digital journalism, tools like Google Trends can be invaluable to journalists. They provide the means to explore topics that previously only dedicated researchers could. But that doesn’t mean stories that use Google Trends data are equivalent to scientific research. Information about search patterns is revealing. But ultimately, it can’t be the whole story.