Modern Marketing Agency

Despite dwindling data access, search still holds the key to candid insights

By Sophie Coley | strategist



Opinion article

November 16, 2021 | 6 min read

Cookie changes have data experts everywhere looking for new ways to understand their customers. As part of our Deep Dive on Data, Sophie Coley, director of strategy at The Drum Network member Propellernet, bangs the drum for a source that some may be overlooking: search data.

Propellernet on why 2022 is the year that marketers need to focus on search.

Propellernet on why 2022 is the year that marketers need to focus on search

The great data reckoning has made 2021 a rough year for digital marketers. But despite dwindling access to the data that powers online campaigns, search marketers still hold the keys to some of the richest data that exists within any organization, the kind that would delight their non-search colleagues.

Take a moment to think what you’ve asked that blank, unimposing Google bar in the last week, month, year. What does it tell us about you? Your life stage? Your interests? Your fears?

Google’s Keyword Planner has long been the go-to tool for search data and volumes. It’s great for seeking out commercial searches; things like ‘Maldives holidays,’ ‘cleaners near me’ and ‘sequined jumpsuits,’ where there’s a high volume of consumers searching with a real purchase intent, but it falls down when you try to use search data to understand people beyond their shopping missions.

The candor of Google searches

But search data can add immense value outside of commercial search. There’s nowhere else that we’re so honest as we are when searching in Google. In his book Everybody Lies, former Google data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz points out how we tell search engines things that we don’t tell the most important people in our lives (our partners, our friends, our family, even our doctors).

We tell Google things that we’d never admit in traditional market research scenarios such as surveys and focus groups, and things that we’d never post on social media. Things like: ‘is it normal to cry every day?’; ‘can you really make money with bitcoin?’; and ‘how to get away with being lazy at work.’

Google’s Keyword Planner won’t often serve you these kinds of searches (and where it does, it downplays the associated search volumes; usually assigning zero or 10 searches per month), but they’re accessible via Google itself. Start typing a search (in an incognito window so as to not be served search suggestions relating to your own personal search history), and you’ll see a bunch of auto-complete suggestions. These are effectively the top-trending search queries in that moment. They’re usually valuable, non-commercial, candid searches. Tools including enable you to scrape this data at scale, generating rich datasets that should delight those who have any need to understand people in their work (that’s almost everyone).

Language games

Linguistics can be a useful tool for cutting and segmenting data. If you’re curious about this approach, some simple things to explore include:

  • 'Like’ searches: these often uncover true influence at a personal and a brand level. ‘Hairstyles like...’ searches, for example, highlight Judi Dench, Lulu, Pink, Lisa Rinna, Jennifer Aniston and Jane Fonda as key beauty influencers, with no mention of the reality TV or social stars we might initially think of in the beauty influence space.

  • ‘For’ searches: these often uncover the most important attributes consumers see as relevant to the product/service they’re looking for. ‘Dinner recipes for...’ searches highlight the number of diners (for one, for two), the type of diner (for family, for kids, for two-year-old) and health needs (for diabetics type two).

  • ‘With’ and ‘without’ searches: these should offer up insights into what elements of a product consumers particularly like or dislike. ‘Toys with...’ searches highlight toys that have wheels, button batteries, big eyes, lights, buttons, lights and sounds and teeth, for example.

Beyond these basic examples, brand teams should be all over search data too; if you’re showing up when people search around palm oil, for example, your communication around your use or non-use of it might not be landing sufficiently (at the time of writing, Google is serving up Cadbury, Lindt, Nutella, Palmolive, Nestlé, Lush, Dove, The Body Shop and McDonald’s when searching ‘does [blank] use palm oil?’).

So we might not be able to track consumers online at the micro-level that we’ve previously been able to, but search marketers still have access to a treasure trove of insight-rich data that can drive business performance beyond performance marketing. Stephens-Davidowitz isn’t overstating when he says: “Google searches are the most important dataset ever collected on the human psyche.” If you’re a search marketer, make 2022 the year that you upskill your colleagues to take advantage of the goldmine. If you’re a PR, a brand marketer or a product developer, then it’s time you made friends with your search colleagues.

Modern Marketing Agency

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