Google Crowdsources Election Trend Spotting, But Be Careful About This

With the first caucuses and primaries just months away, Google is turning to the crowd to find neat election trends using the Internet giant’s myriad of tools.

In a post yesterday on the company’s Politics & Elections blog, Jake Parrillo sent out a call for help.

Search trends could help explain poll fluctuations, he wrote, using an example of how Herman Cain (who is surging in the polls) is widely being searched for in Texas cities, where Rick Perry (whose poll numbers are declining) is governor.

The top 10 cities searching for Herman Cain. Four of them are in Texas. (Google)

Embedded in the blog post is a Google Docs form for people to share neat trends they spot.

While the flagging of these trends is great for Google, a major word of caution is in order for others who use search or other quantitative data to explain news events.

Correlation is not causation.

I learned that during a political research class in college. Search trends could mean many different things. Oftentimes, it has to do with people looking up hot trends in the news. For instance, Cain has been in the news a lot lately due to his poll surge. Those folks in Texas searching for him might just want to learn more–obviously, it does not indicate any kind of support.

Search trends are an invaluable tool for online journalists. I monitor search trends constantly as part of my day job, in order to see what readers want, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in this field who doesn’t.

With Cain leading polls, people want to know why, and lots has been written. That’s likely the explanation for his Google surge. But trying to correlate a search trend to actual political support could cause problems.