Update: Google Zeitgeist was discontinued in 2009 and replaced by Year in Search, which is a part of Google Trends platform.
Google Zeitgeist or Google time spirit, is the web site by Google, summarizing the most popular searches of Google users in some major countries as well as in the world as a whole. The search results are summarized each year under the categories: Searches, Images, Athletes, TV Shows, etc. The local results, furthermore, contain interesting How to…? What is…? Why… ? and some other categories.
While the world’s 2012 results seem to be very much “anglo-saxon” and including people like “Kate Middleton” and “Whitney Houston”, the local results in other languages contain a mixture of international and in-country search subjects. For example the 2012 results for Germany included both “Whitney Houston” and “Dirk Bach”. The results for Japan even featured only local Japanese celebrities (e.g. Sugi-chan and Mae Fukuda).
How is Zeitgeist derived? Google analyzes a large share of searches, e.g. in 2012 around 100 bn searches in 146 languages were analyzed. One of the tools used is Google Trends,which can also process searches for images. The tool Hot Searches available for some countries, allows receiving updates on search trends almost on the hourly basis. The yearly issue of Google Zeitgeist is a quintessence of topics that Google found interesting throughout the year.
Similar search trend summaries are issued weekly by Yandex and other search engines.
What could the search results be used for? Firstly, Google positions its “Zeitgeist” as an instrument for singling out the society trends and monitoring the development of the trends in time. The results of top searches go through the press and are studied by both sociologists and futurists. Secondly, Zeitgeist, together with other tools on Google Insights, provide a list of ideas on how accumulated Google search results can be used in laying out marketing strategy. And finally, Google Zeitgeist and other Google-related trending tools are widely considered for search engine optimization and in search engine marketing (Google AdWords).
However, it may be reasonable to take a critical look at the importance and plausibility of Google Zeitgeist for trend plotting. It is well known that trend research as a science has no established methodology free of bias. While John Naisbitt used the scanning of newspapers for his first “Megatrends” book, other widely applied methods include trend scouting and Delphi-technique (experts’ surveying).
Due to the nature of search engines, theoretically speaking, every user of a search engine (which encompasses the absolute majority of the Internet users) would have an impact on the results of the trending in the Google Zeitgeist. In other words, not only a limited group of newspaper editors and journalists, “trendy” youngsters or highly educated experts, but virtually everyone with access to the Internet participates in shaping the trends of today…
Though this is an exciting prospective, it must be noted that the Internet is in a way closed system, and the information primarily circulating and being multiplied by queries (especially the top-searches, not the long tail) in search engines is still the information originally contained around these engines (e.g. “hot topics” from Google News or blogs).
Furthermore, the trends from Google Zeitgeist are often unspecific, so that they can hardly be used in SEO or SEM practice in promoting a particular product or service. Strictly speaking, Google Insights tools are generally insufficient: the keyword analysis starts from analyzing the product itself followed by the analysis of the existing product website and other content, whereas blind optimizing on the most searched for keywords may be in conflict with the essence of what is being offered to the end-customer.
Google search trends may, in some cases, help marketers to stay abreast of the latest developments, to tie up one or two campaign elements to the hot topics or to use a creative approach in capitalizing on the trends. However, this is not easily done; in addition, some trends contain rather illogical or obscure results (e.g. two of the top Google Zeitgeist trends for Russia in 2012 were “Why Obama is a cactus” and “Why cats purr”).
In general, doubts exist concerning how useful the trends may be for strategic decisions. Some well-known researchers, such as the German trend research guru Matthias Horx state that the main purpose of trend plotting is making people aware of the present or developing their sensitivity towards societal shifts (“descaling” of minds) rather than providing them with a clear picture of the future.
All in all, Google Zeitgeist is an interesting and entertaining way of looking at the spread of search queries throughout different countries in a given year. However, it is not a tool, on which strategic marketing decisions can be based.