By Lana Bojanić
The development of new software and platforms has attracted the attention of researchers in psychology and other behavioural sciences for decades now. From using it for easier data collection, as many do with online questionnaires, to harvesting digital footprint from social media, more and more researchers are embracing these new resources. One of these is Google Trends, a website that analyses the popularity of Google search queries across regions and languages. Back when Google launched new Google Trends in 2012, it was used mostly by marketing and PR experts, but it was not long until mental health and suicide researchers started using it as an additional data source. With Google holding almost 90% of market share in the UK, turning to it in hope to capture different aspects of certain phenomenon is a logical step, especially if that phenomenon is highly complex and different to predict, like suicide undoubtedly is. If proven to be a valid source of data, Google Trends has the potential to be used to provide population level insight, almost in real-time, allowing for more timely conclusions and interventions than ‘old-fashioned’, questionnaire-based methodology that often suffers from considerable lag.
The question is: how valuable are Google Trends data for suicide research? As with everything, the answer seems to depend on how carefully they are obtained and analysed. Data that can be obtained from Google Trends represent the frequency of a search query relative to the total search volume in a given period of time in a certain geographic location. Output is given in weekly format and in normalised scores: 100 represent the maximum search volume of the query (more detailed information can be found on the Google Trends Help Page). Data can be downloaded in .csv format that is easily imported in any data analysis software. Since it was not originally designed to be used in research, Google Trends data has inherent quality issues, such as asynchonicity. However, it seems that the majority of current suicide research using Google Trends encounters pitfalls at the very beginning: asking a research question.
The old problem of “garbage in- garbage out” is evident when it comes to Google Trends research. It is crucial that the query you use to obtain the data effectively represents the construct of suicidality. As a rule, more general queries leads to more ambiguity. For example, a query that simply uses the term ‘suicide’ or ‘overdose’ will probably result in analysable data, but the results will be difficult to interpret. Even when weeding out results that concern titles of movies and songs, it remains unclear whether the information seeking behaviour of googling the term ‘overdose’ was preceded by curiosity, suicidal ideation and/or intention, or concern for personal or someone else’s well-being. Still, many papers use exactly this kind of approach. Using more specific search queries that convey intention (e.g. ‘How to overdose’) could help lessen the ambiguity. However, the more specific the query is, the higher the chance of incomplete data, especially for shorter time periods and geographical locations that are less populated.
The solution seems to be, a well-defined research question and obtaining data for as many terms related to the research question as possible. Research questions should concern specifics of suicidal behaviour and obtain data for associated queries. Generating terms related to the research question seems to be a time-consuming task that should involve collaborative thinking, conjugating words within the queries and thinking of phrases that imply intention. Suggestions for related queries that Google Trends provides by default should also be considered and incorporated in the list if appropriate. Lists of terms used can and should be preregistered, if possible.
It will be interesting to see how the quality of Google Trends data will evolve through Google’s interaction with researchers. For now, it is important to keep in mind its limitations and to be creative and extensive when generating terms for which the data are obtained. If used carefully and with extensive preparation, Google Trends can be an interesting addition to the established data sources in suicide research.
Lana Bojanić (@BojanicLana) has a Master’s degree in psychology and is a Research Assistant at the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health, University of Manchester (firstname.lastname@example.org).