Technologist: Trend Forecasters Adapt to Google

A year from now, will chicken McNuggets be more popular than Big Macs? will every 20-something woman in New York buy leggings again this summer? Are trucker hats, which were so popular in 2003, poised for a comeback in 2009? The answers are worth billions of dollars to major corporations. When fast-food eaters start preferring chicken over beef, McDonald's needs to know months or even years ahead of time in order to place contracts with poultry farms, redesign menus and undertake expensive marketing campaigns.

Similarly, buyers for fashion outposts like H&M have to know a year or more in advance whether their customers will prefer leggings or skirts in summer 2009 because of the huge time lag involved in designing and manufacturing clothing. Automakers, device manufacturers and many other industries face similar problems.

The traditional fix has been to hire trend forecasters, who are paid to know what we like, sometimes even before we know we like it. Many maintain networks of hip informants around the world who tell them what's currently hot, and what will be hot soon. Coupled with polling, news articles and their own intuition, they divine that hot pink is the new black, and then sell that knowledge to companies like the Gap. Companies pay handsomely for their reports and expertise. And now Google, as with many other industries, is threatening this lucrative niche.

For a clear reason why, take a look at Google Trends, which lets anyone with a computer peer at the wealth of search data gathered by the tech giant. With a few simple keystrokes, you can find how many people are searching for mustaches versus goatees (to use a trivial example). A few keystrokes more, and you can break down the results by year, month, city, country or any number of other variables. And it's not the only way to access Google's data treasure trove. Google Hot Trends, a similar offering, displays the top 100 searches of the past hour. Google Insights for Search is a more powerful version of Google Trends aimed specifically at marketers and business owners.

Google Flu, a recent innovation from Google.org, the search giant's not-for-profit sidekick, provides a good example of why these tools are so powerful and potentially disruptive to forecasters. Building on academic research, Google.org realized that certain keywords, like those that describe a specific flu symptom or remedy, have a strong correlation with actual flu outbreaks. With that insight, Google now analyzes search data to identify cities most affected by the disease. The information is updated daily; by comparison, flu-tracking information from the Centers for Disease Control, which uses doctors' office visits and similar data, has a time lag of about two weeks.

The Google strategy could render irrelevant a lot of the expensive reports that trend forecasters in the so-called intelligence industry now rely on for revenue. "That whole model needs to change," says Tina Wells, CEO of the Buzz Marketing Group. "Companies can go online and basically find out for free what people used to be able to be paid for." Take, for example, the Q Score, compiled by company Marketing Evaluations Inc., which uses the reactions of sample audiences to measure the appeal of a brand, celebrity or TV show. "Why not just Google it?" asks Wells. The company's model, she says, is now threatened. Marketing Evaluations says it recognizes the need to innovate, and regularly releases new scores that capture opinions not easily found online or elsewhere.

A number of online tools other than Google provide helpful services that replicate information now offered by the intelligence industry. Technorati aggregates information on blogs. Last.fm provides metrics for music. Even simple services like Google News can steal business from a hapless trend forecaster, since it enables anyone, anywhere, to discover new trends bubbling to the surface in, say, Stockholm.

Of course, what may be a threat to some is a resource to others. "What would we do without Google?" says Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group. She refers to the pre-Internet period as B.G., or "Before Google," and calls them "the bleak, dark times." Today, she finds that being able to instantly access data behind emerging trends from Istanbul to Idaho via Google is a boon to her business. "Normally clients want new things, but they want some backing, some sense of where we are now," she says. That means that although she may already have known about the decline of hip-hop, with indie rock rising in its place, Google Trends provided aggregated search info to prove the point to clients.

Besides, there's still plenty of interpretation to be done, even when using a sophisticated program like Google Insights for Search. Typing in "R&B" instead of "hip-hop" yields entirely different results; forecasters, in other words, need to know not just what to look for, but how to look for it. And the best forecasters are looking for trends that are many years in the making, and which may still be too fringe to register as more than a drop in Google's ocean of information. Thus, although it will cause pain for some, the trend industry will likely adapt to the new era of information overload. For eternal questions like which shade of pink will become the new black, Google will be just another weapon in the forecasters' arsenal.