Google funded study implies that Google Trends is a valid and rigorous behavioural indicator

I find that this disclaimer at the end of this study effectively invalidates the method of the study and its results.

This project was supported by a grant from 2012, although played no role in designing or conducting this study.

The results of the study (that more people searched for health issues on Google during the recession) are trivial and – with the best will in the world – of little value except for providing a plug for Google Search and Google Trends. Of course a Google Trend means something but to imply – as this study does – that a Google Trend for selected search items  is a rigorous and valid representation of a human behavioural pattern is more than a little fanciful.

Benjamin M. Althouse et al, Population Health Concerns During the United States’ Great Recession, Am J Prev Med 2014;46(2):166–170

Press Release: 

The group examined Americans’ Google search patterns and discovered that during the recent Great Recession, people searched considerably more frequently for information about health ailments. The kinds of problems indicated by the queries weren’t life threatening, but they could keep someone in the bed a few days, like ulcers, headaches, and back pain. 

In total, the team found there were more than 200 million excess queries of this kind during the Great Recession than expected.

“While it’s impossible to uncover the motives for increased searches, they likely indicate a person being ill, and ill enough to seek out online information or remedies,” Ayers said. The same group previously published a report showing that queries for anxiety and depression also increased substantially during the Great Recession.

The authors themselves write:

google search

Without first a study on whether the usage of Google search is actually representative of any part of the population, and whether a trend in such usage permits conclusions regarding the motives for such usage, this study is little more than an advertisement for Google Search and Google Trends.

Just as with Facebook surveys and profound conclusions, I am not at all sure that this “study” can even be considered science  – let alone good science. It is published  – believe it or not – in a journal of preventive medicine,  but it has little to do with medicine and more to do with PR and  Google’s image.

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