Thursday, November 17, 2016

Search data can be really helpful, but always think carefully when you use it

(Full disclosure: I'm a consultant-art director for Google in this series of visualizations.)

The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham says that the chart below is one of “the most depressing” he's seen this year. He's written an article about it.

I really appreciate Ingraham's work, but I think that, in this specific case, he's reading a bit too much into that Google Trends chart —or not showing a big enough picture. He says:
Google's data doesn't indicate peoples' sentiment toward the Klan when they search for it — whether they view it positively or negatively. It does, however, illustrate how the Klan is now seen as part of current events, rather than a relic of the past. [...] In 2006, for example, people who searched for the Ku Klux Klan were also searching primarily for topics related to history and racism, according to Google's data, suggesting attempts to situate the clan within the country's history. In the past year, however, people searching for the Klan were also looking for information on Trump, Hillary Clinton and African Americans in general, according to Google.
Well, yes, of course. People use Google to look for information. That could actually be the headline, but it wouldn't be that catchy, wouldn't it? See: “People are using Google to inform themselves about current events —like Stephen K. Bannon's appointment as White House strategist.” See what happens if we search for terms like “fascism”, “autocrat”, or “white supremacism” in Google Trends —related searches, which Ingraham mentions, and U.S.-only searches are very similar: