Add Google Trends to Your Sermon and Lesson Prep
Have you ever preached a sermon or tried to lead a small group discussion based on a topic you know people care about, but it doesn’t quite land? Perhaps it was not the topic that was the issue, but it was the way you framed it or the language you used. A couple minutes on Google Trends will help you focus and refine a sermon or lesson in order to really connect.
A General Overview
When you first navigate to Google Trends (http://www.google.com/trends), here is what you will see:
“Featured stories” displays curated topics that are relevant at the moment. “Trending stories” features a more up-to-the-minute list that is constantly changing — there is even a little “refresh” button at the top right of the section.
Above and to the right of “featured stories” are filters. The first allows you to explore specific categories like business, sports, tech, or news. The second allows you to filter by location. On the front page, you can only filter by country, but when we dig deeper into topics, you will be able to see much more localized results.
Clicking on any of these topics will take you to a page that provides details including:
- Relevant news articles
- How the topic is trending over time
- Maps detailing searches by location
- Actual search terms people are using
- Links to related topics.
Breaking Down the Details
For some bigger topics, especially those in “featured stories,” Google breaks down the information even further. One of the stories in the screenshot above relates to the Academy Award nominations. If you wanted to engage this topic, you could talk generally about the movies/actors/actresses, but the Google Trends story page provides some interesting alternatives. For example, the top news stories all focus on race and the Oscars. Further down the page is a chart showing that searches for “snub” spike every year right after nominations. These are more specific topics that might inspire deeper engagement.
Reading the Chart
The most prominent feature on any topic’s page is the “Interest over time” chart. It is important that you understand how to read this chart, as it may be different than you are expecting.
Google describes this data as being “indexed and normalized,” meaning it is not raw search volume. The graph relays how popular a search term is in relation to all of the Google searches at any moment in time. So, if it is trending up, the topic is more popular, and vice versa. Below is an example Google provided in a tutorial video:
For the search term “burrito,” the graph is trending up. This means that “burrito” is making up an increasingly larger percentage of all the searches done on Google. The number you see associated with a specific point in time compares how popular the search term was at that moment to when it was most popular. The peak appears to be in late 2015, so the popularity of the search term in April 2008 is only 30% of what it was in late 2015.
Using the Compare Feature
It is important at times to compare search terms since these graphs display relative information and not raw numbers. For example, you might look at this graph and say that burritos are very popular. While burritos are being searched for now more than ever, let’s compare them to the search term “taco”:
Suddenly, burrito’s impressive trend line becomes a flat line. Not only are tacos a higher percentage of the overall Google searches, but their popularity as a search term is rising at a significantly higher rate.
Identifying Correlations with Real World Events
You can see that there is a check box above the chart that reads “News headlines.” Unfortunately, this feature wasn’t working when I was taking the screenshots, but, when functional, Google suggests news stories that may have influenced the spike. With some topics, you may be able to figure it out with a little Googling of your own. Here’s an example:
This chart is for the search term “2016 election” in the US over the last 12 months (I will cover these filters later). I have highlighted three distinctive points in the chart (Note: I used Photoshop to display all three at once). The first peak during the week of April 12-18 corresponded with Hillary Clinton’s official entrance into the race, August 2-8 corresponded with the first Republican debate, and November 1-7 corresponded with the “one year to go” point.
How to Use This In Preaching and/or Small Groups
The general features are fun, however it can also be a powerful tool to help you with your sermons and/or small group preparation. By searching for specific topics and terms, you can not only see the popularity of search terms, but you can see the actual words and phrases people are using in relation to the topics. This can help you tailor the language you use or even provide a direction from which to approach a topic.
Let’s say that as a pastor or small group leader, you have the feeling that anxiety is on the rise. People seem more stressed out now than ever. While God never promises perfect health or safety, there are powerful words of hope and encouragement in the Bible. So, let’s explore “anxiety” on Google Trends.
When you type a term into the “explore” bar at the top, Google provides a couple suggestions. The first is always whatever you typed in, and it will say “search term” underneath. This displays data for that exact word or phrase without any filters. Below that first entry are recommended terms focused within a category. For example, earlier when we searched “burrito,” we selected it as a plain search term, but we could have selected it filtered as a “food.” By selecting “food,” it tries to bring up only results relevant to burrito as a food. This technique will be important later.
Here is the page for the general search term “anxiety”:
A couple things to note:
- In the dark blue “Explore” bar, you can set up custom time/date and location filters. They can get as specific as the last hour or localized to mid-sized and major cities.
- As we covered earlier, the “Interest over time” chart shows the popularity of the search. As we suspected, anxiety is running near 100, meaning it is being searched now more than ever as a percentage of all Google searches.
- Next is the “Regional interest” section, which shows a “heat map” of how popular search terms are by location. Note that in the top right of the box, you can look at the data broken down by Metro and City levels.
- The bottom box called “Related searches” shows the actual words and phrases people are using to search for this and related topics. You might note that many of the searches are around symptoms and treatments — people are looking for ways to identify and lower anxiety. Also, “depression” shows up a couple times, so it might be impactful to address this as well.
- In the top right of each list are buttons reading “Top” and “Rising.” Top results show what has been most searched over the time window selected, while rising results show what is increasing most recently. Here are the rising results:
- Two things stand out here. First, the top rising query is for “anxiety box.” A quick Google search reveals that this is a tech project designed to reduce anxiety. It gained popularity when it was featured on the podcast ReplyAll. It might be a good idea to listen to that episode. Second, the next highest rising topic is “anxiety meme,” which is a sign to me that young people are trying to express and address their anxiety online through humor. Both of these provide avenues for reflection and research.
We have a pretty solid start, but let’s do a comparison with a related term just to be sure we’re on the right track — remember the burrito vs. taco problem! Some of the Bible verses we might use will include the phrase, “fear not.” So, let’s compare anxiety with fear. Choosing the right word may affect how well people connect with what you’re teaching. Here’s the comparison between them both as general search terms:
At first glance, they appear interchangeable for most of the last year. Then in the fall, “fear” spikes as a search term. A Google search of the news in August and September points to coverage of Syrian refugees, but that doesn’t really seem to explain it. So, let’s look further down the page. Note that when comparing, the terms are listed at the top right of the lower boxes allowing you to toggle between the terms in the location and related searches sections.
When we get to the bottom, the issue becomes clear: in August 2015, the TV show “Fear the Walking Dead” premiered. Since we are looking at “fear” as a general search term, it is taking into account every time it was included in a search, which would include the TV show. My hunch is that this show is skewing not only the spike, but it likely increased searches over the summer as the premier drew closer and later in the fall as the show continued.
Fixing Skewed Data
To fix this, we need to look at Google’s other options for the term “fear.” One of them is fear as a “symptom.” While this isn’t perfect, it is much closer. Let’s add that to our page:
The new graph shows us that “fear” within the realm of “symptom” is a significantly less popular search term. The bottom graph once again shows us that the TV show is skewing some of the data, but it is having much less of an effect. In fact, that means that the “fear” line is showing up even higher than it should. Taking all of this together, my conclusion is that focusing on “anxiety” is the right approach.
Other General Features
When you click on the menu button in the top left, it displays the following:
- Explore offers you the chance to set up even more specific parameters. For example, you can compare results by location (ex. your state vs. the whole US) or by time (ex. 2014 vs. 2015).
- Trending Searches provides the top searches at the moment without any filters or curation. It also provides a window into raw search volume, as it might say something like “50,000+ searches” for a term.
- Trending on YouTube provides a window into the most popular videos on YouTube at the moment. This might be a resource for illustrations — just be sure to abide by copyright rules!
- Top Charts shows lists by topic areas like people, movies, animals, and more. There are drop down filters at the top that let you see data based on time period and location.
- Subscriptions allows you to receive an email at regular intervals with updated information about custom search terms.
Whether you are fine-tuning a sermon, keeping tabs on what’s going on, or looking for topics to engage on social media, Google Trends is a powerful free tool that can benefit your ministry. Use the comments below to let us know what interesting things you have discovered!
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