Search engines and the vast amounts of information pertaining to them are one of the most obvious examples of ‘big data’, which is often used to research patterns and predict outcomes. We’ve written before about how Bing has taken to using its data to make predictions, with mixed levels of success.
Bing, for example, was wrong when it forecast a 55.4% vote in favour of a Remain vote in the UK referendum on EU membership this year. It’s surprising that it came to such a conclusion, in fact, because search engine trends, at least via Google, suggested that leaving was the more searched-for outcome.
Some commentators have noted similarities between Trump’s presidential campaign and the way the EU referendum panned out, with Trump even dubbing himself ‘Mr. Brexit’. Like with Brexit, Trump has remained an outsider throughout his campaign. As of Monday afternoon, bookmakers generally place him at around 5/1 to be the next president, while Hillary Clinton is as short as 1/8 with some of them. Similar stats were true with the referendum though, with a Leave outcome widely available at 6/1 even on the day of the vote. With more and more people talking about the billionaire businessman turned politician, and his vociferous band of followers seemingly more galvanised with every tweet and soundbite he puts out there, could it really happen?
We can see from the Google Trends screenshot below that a lot more Americans are Googling ‘vote Trump’ rather than ‘vote Clinton’, and that’s been the case for the last 90 days. In fact, recent weeks seem to be indicating that ‘vote Trump’ is pulling away in the search stakes. On September 20, Trends ranked searches just 17 to 13 in Trump’s favour. Last Wednesday, October 12, this had moved to 100 to 27. Are these searches a reflection of how Americans are thinking and, crucially, how they will vote on November 8?
This is a distinct possibility, but it’s worth remembering that people’s curiosity tends to veer towards extremes. Trump is unquestionably a controversial character, and people may Google ‘vote Trump’ not because that’s what they’re going to do, but because they’re flabbergasted at the prospect of anyone doing it and want to understand why they would, or simply research the campaign. Likewise, during the EU referendum, ‘Remain’ was widely seen as the ‘safe’ option, while ‘Leave’ was thought more to be a leap into the unknown. It was an anti-establishment vote that UK internet users were Googling and, coincidentally or otherwise, 52% of the electorate ended up choosing it.
To provide some balance, the graph above shows Google search patterns in the UK during 2014, when Scotland was gripped by its referendum to leave the United Kingdom. As you can see, ‘Scotland vote yes’ (that was ‘yes’ to leaving the UK) and ‘Scotland vote no’ were trundling along at a similar pace for most of the year, but ‘yes’ shot ahead as the September vote neared. However, the majority of Scots voted ‘no’, so in this case, search engine and polling booth behaviour differed.
Again, leaving the UK was the more radical option for Scots, so perhaps Google Trends just reflects people’s desire to ‘scare’ themselves and search for the out of the ordinary. With that in mind, perhaps we should side with the bookmakers in the U.S. presidential election, without ruling out the possibility of 2016 delivering yet another of its curveballs.