Catching up on 15 years of Google Trends
When we initially launched an experimental version of Trends 15 years ago, we pointed out ways people could use data to look at things like ice cream flavor popularity and singing competition contestants, or how much people searched for certain politicians. Since then, Google Trends has become an important resource for journalists, researchers, scholars, brands — and anyone else who wants to use it.
I’ve been working on Google Trends for almost five years as a Data Editor. I wanted to catch up with Yossi Matias, VP of Engineering and Research, who led the team that launched Trends. I took some time to talk about those early days with Yossi, as well as where we see Trends heading.
How it started; how it's going.
Simon: Where did the idea for Google Trends come from?
Yossi: Google Trends was initially an experimental tool in Google Labs designed to help us understand trends on Google Search. For the first time, we were able to leverage this aggregated data to better understand what people were interested in and what they were looking for when they came to Search. We realized how useful it would be to launch Google Trends as a full product providing insights into what people are searching for in the aggregate and make it available to everyone.
This was one of the first projects for the newly established Google site in Israel, and our team worked closely with other teams across Google. Our focus was on large scale data analytics, so it was exciting to build something that shared our insights with the world.
The Trends team in Tel Aviv in August 2008.
Simon: Do you remember what launching it was like? What were the reactions like?
Yossi: Since the full public launch of Google Trends was one of the first led by the Israel team — it felt like it really set a tone for what we would go on to do. I just remember it was exciting to be a part of this huge opportunity for learning and sharing about what people were interested in at large and small scales. I also remember being excited to see how Google Trends could be used to identify trends early — before they were huge, or how it could be used to predict what could happen as a result of something like a health outbreak or economic event.
Simon: How have you seen this tool change? Were there any updates that stick out to you?
Yossi: As Google Search has evolved, so has Google Trends, starting with daily trends and the ability to organize data into categories. We’ve also added more languages, better visualizations and expanded trends to include new ways of searching, such as Image Search and videos.
When Search started adapting to the semantic meaning of queries with our Knowledge Graph, Google Trends also brought entities to the tool so that Trends better reflects what people are interested in, regardless of the exact wording they used when searching. And as Search became fresher and more real-time, so did Trends — gaining insights on what’s trending “right now,” from sporting events to natural disasters. Google Trends often reflect real-world phenomena in real-time and it’s become a basis for “nowcasting,” or predicting the present, for trends in economics, health and social sciences. Since its inception, we’ve seen Google Trends inform numerous papers across many research disciplines.
Yossi: One thing I’m interested to hear from you is how you think journalists and researchers can best use Google Trends?
Simon: The great thing about Trends is it’s the only tool out there that can give you both a real-time sense of what people actually care about as well as a view of how those trends have shifted over time. We’ve seen journalists use Trends to generate stories and to see what people want to know about the news to really compliment existing coverage.
Yossi: I have to imagine working on Trends in 2020 was an unusual experience…
Simon: It was an unforgettable year — but also one where Trends really felt like it helped us understand the complex emotions and events we all went through. Health searches showed exactly what people were worried about as a result of the pandemic. And we also experienced the most-searched U.S. election in Google history, plus huge demonstrations around racial equity, which also showed up in Search. There was anxiety and insecurity around unemployment — which was searched at an all-time high. At the same time, we saw these really human searches around how to make things or how to help others.
Yossi: Why do you still like working on Trends? What does it tell us about the world?
Simon: It’s such a unique tool. It’s the world’s largest free-to-use dataset of its kind; it’s incredibly honest and reveals what people as a group really care about. There’s nothing like it.