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Media Measurement Brand Purpose Politics

Polls are often wrong, so can search data predict the UK general election result?

By Sophie Coley, Director of Strategy



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July 2, 2024 | 7 min read

Search data is incredibly revealing, says Sophie Coley of Propellernet. But what does it tell us about how the country intends to vote on Thursday?

A row of Union Flag bunting

Polls vary - but does search data provide a reliable view of the coming UK general election? / Chris Boland via Unsplash

In 2012, an American economics student published a paper that included predictions of recent political elections that were more accurate than traditional polls. But Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wasn’t a prophet. He was someone obsessed with Google data and the candid human truths it could reveal. His 2017 book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are explores how he made his predictions.

As someone who very much agrees that search data can be an incredible source of audience insight, I’ve been tracking searches around the upcoming UK election, using data from Google Trends. Google’s free-to-use tool reveals search demand for any given query or topic, for any time period. Searches around five of the leading UK political parties over the last 30 days make for an interesting data set to explore.

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The big picture

Fascinatingly, the big news that Reform had overtaken the Conservatives in a YouGov poll broke on June 14 – but search data actually signaled this change in the opposition party 11 days prior. The Conservatives were marginally ahead of Reform in terms of search interest for all but one day before May 27, but demand has been either equal between the two parties or greater for Reform ever since. This interest increased significantly from June 3, when Nigel Farage announced he would stand.

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Stephens-Davidowtiz’s work focused on the order searchers typed out political parties, finding the party that typically most commonly started a search query was more likely to win. Google Trends struggles to surface a meaningful volume of data in the UK using this methodology. But, looking at May UK search data from Google’s Keyword Planner (June data is yet to be released), there were 18,100 searches for ‘Labour vs Conservative’, 720 for ‘Labour vs Tory’, 110 for ‘Labour vs Reform UK’, 50 for ‘Reform vs Conservative’, but very few where the Tory party started the search query. This would echo what both YouGov’s polls and Google Trends data suggest in terms of Labour leading the race with Reform in second place.

While search demand around Reform has grown rapidly in the last 30 days, Labour is still winning the overall battle for search interest. It was the most searched-for party every day, other than June 3 when Farage announced he was standing, June 14/15 when the Reform polling story broke, and June 18 when the Reform manifesto launched. Labour’s manifesto launch on June 13 caused the biggest single spike in search activity for any party.

There’s been a similar volume of search activity around the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats since May 30, with both seeing significant spikes on the days their manifestos launched. There’s been a comparatively low level of searches around the Green Party versus the other four parties. But again, their manifesto launch drove their biggest spike.

Breakout searches

As well as revealing search demand, Google Trends surfaces ‘rising’ (or trending) searches. These highlight themes that are driving searches and can help us understand why people are turning to Google. Usually, Google shares the percentage growth figure, but searches that have grown by more than 5000% – which has been the case with the majority of election-related searches – are defined as having ‘breakout’ growth.

‘Breakout’ searches around the Conservatives for the last 30 days have included ‘Conservatives national service’, ‘Conservative candidates list’, and ‘why vote Conservative?’, highlighting how controversial the conscription policy has been and the convincing needed by many to vote for them. Tory politicians who’ve driven ‘breakout’ search interest include Oliver Johnstone, Ed McGuinness, and Laura Anne Jones – all of whom have been involved in scandal – and Aaron Bell, who announced he will not be standing.

For the Labour Party it’s been ‘Labour tax rises’, ‘Labour pensions lifetime allowance’, ‘Labour CGT’ (capital gains tax), and ‘retirement tax Labour’. In fact, many Labour-focused searches have related to taxes and pensions, highlighting how key these issues could be in deciding the final election results. Labour politicians who’ve driven search spikes of 5000%+ include Faiza Shaheen – who was barred from standing after allegedly liking an antisemitic post on X – and Praful Nargund, who will be fighting Jeremy Corbyn for Islington North.

Reform’s ‘breakout’ searches have included ‘Reform Party political broadcast’, ‘Reform UK contract’ and ‘Could Reform win the election?’, with Ian Gribbin, David Bull, and Farage driving search spikes too.

Times of significant political and cultural change highlight how insightful search data can be – but search data can also be used by any marketer needing to better understand the people they’re trying to reach at any point in time. It really is a source of candid human learnings and truths: take a look at your own Google history, and you might be surprised how much it says about you.

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