Annika Richterich: Google Trends: Using and Promoting Search Volume Indicators for Research

This paper discusses methodological research developments related to the web service Google Trends. It reflects on the implications of data evaluation based on search engine queries. Recent methodological developments in quantitative research design can be traced back to the establishment of search engines as main gateways to online content. While Google Inc. uses its own received web search queries in order to maintain more specific services, such as the epistemological surveillance platform Google Flu Trends, it also presents excerpts from its databases publicly in Google Trends. The service indicates, for example, how frequently a search-term has been entered in Google, and where this query can be geographically located. Information on actual search volumes is not provided, however. Recent studies have drawn on Google Trends in order to analyse relations between these search volume indications and developments such as stock market moves. What is presented to the public and used in most of these studies, however, are merely surrogates and indicators of the original web search logs and search engine queries, rather than the data itself. Such developments should be seen critically, since the original data are exclusively available to respective media companies and selected scientists. Google Trends is supposed to communicate transparency and openness. As a symbolic gesture, it implies that Google ‘hands back’ parts of the user-generated search engine data to the public. Applications such as Google (Flu) Trends are staged as philanthropic investment, but are only one out of the many data mining possibilities that are based on the users automatically paying their search engine queries with the data they leave behind.
(Paper in German | Discussion)

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