My newest methodological obsession….Google search terms

Photo by Jeffrey Beall

The root of my newest obsession: this article.  The author, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a PhD student in economics at Harvard, innovatively uses location-specific Google search terms (Google Insights) to estimate that Obama lost 5 percentage points in 2008 because of “racial animus” or racism.  How does he do this? Well, since self-reported surveys poorly capture racism, he looks at use of the n-word in Google searches as a proxy for an area’s level of “racial animus.” He then compares an area’s racially charged search terms to its votes for Obama, controlling for its votes for John Kerry in 2004. Although we could definitely argue whether Google searches including the n-word adequately capture racial animus, there appears to be something to this. To a methodologist, it presents a fascinating example of attempting to measure something that appears to be unmeasurable.

Davidowitz isn’t the only one using Google search terms for social research. NPR recently did a piece on sociologist Phillip Cohen’s Google Correlate explorations.  Cohen has some interesting analyses examining the correlations among search terms and geographic space, such as how Google searches for certain political commentators such as Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh correlate strongly with other “odd” search terms (like fennel salad) and also adhere to red/blue-state patterns. Is your interest piqued? Here are more of Cohen’s interesting Google correlations.

Guess which terms correlate more strongly with “cadmium” (a chemical element in the periodic table)? Here’s the answer.  Hmmmm….interesting?

In sum, I agree with Cohen that “Someone — probably not me — should get serious about using this kind of data to connect search behavior with demographic trends, politics, culture, and other aggregate patterns of social behavior.” Any takers?


Author: Rachel Lovell

Rachel Lovell is the Senior Research Methodologist at the SSRC where she is responsible for designing, developing, implementing, and analyzing empirical research studies generated within SSRC and also by faculty researchers affiliated with SSRC. Rachel received her Ph.D. in sociology from The Ohio State University in 2007. Her more recent research interests include women, public health, and sex work.

2 thoughts on “My newest methodological obsession….Google search terms”

Leave a re/ply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s