Using Google Trends to fine-tune your news website

If you’ve not yet discovered Google Trends, click over and have yourself a look.

Google Trends allows you to select up to five words or phrases, then shows you how those search terms rate relative to one another in both the volume of search queries handled by Google, as well as news references tracked by the search engine. It’s an addictive site for a data geek, like me, and essential for any online publisher who wants to optimize his or her publication to attract more visitors from search engines, such as Google.

Your site’s traffic logs ought to show you which search terms readers are using to find your website. But Google Trends shows which terms people are using to look for sites. That’s a key distinction. With Google Trends, you can test related search terms that are not showing up in your traffic logs, to see if they are, in fact, more popular than the terms people are using to find your site. If they are, you will have found the terms you need to start emphasizing in your site’s content and navigation design.

Plus, the site’s just fun to play with. Let’s start, for example, with that whole silly “Bloggers vs. Journalists” debate that we’ve belittled here on OJR in the past:

Bloggers vs. Journalists

(I used the plural because the singular, “Blogger,” is the name of a very popular blogging tool, and I thought that searches for it would skew the results in blogging’s favor.)

These days, it is a wash among the general public, though journalists, no surprise, tend to prefer, well, journalists.

Let’s turn to the elections for the next United States president. Who’s winning the “online” Democratic primary?

Clinton vs. Obama

Here, I looked just at the past 12 months and only at traffic from the United States, some of the many filtering options that Google provides. Barack Obama’s broken out to a significant lead among the curious Google searching-public, it appears, though the number of news industry references to the two appear generally even. FWIW, I tried again using the candidate’s first and last names, and the trends were pretty much the same.

Here’s an interesting result that you might want to keep in mind for your front page design:

News vs. Weather

“Weather” is as popular as search term as “news.” And while interest in the term “news” has remained somewhat constant over the past several years, though with much variance, I see a small increase in public interest in the term “weather.” (Global warming-fueled volatility? I don’t know.) But the search data suggests that there is significant public interest in weather, meriting prominent placement on news websites.

I also found interesting the steady increase in news references to the term “news” over recent years. Is that the result of more branding, or just navel gazing?

Finally, I tested the names of the top five broadsheet papers in the United States, by daily circulation.

Top U.S. newspapers

Again, FWIW, I tested both “Los Angeles Times” and “LA Times” and found that using “LA Times” moved that paper’s line up a smidge. But it still trailed the others. The New York Times, it appears, remains the top U.S. paper most popular among Google searchers. The trend lines remained in the same order using the site’s domains, rather than traditional print names, too.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at