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Google Ngram & Google Trends: Two Google Tools No One Ever Talks About

As evidenced by the obsolescence of phone books and Encyclopedia World Books, it’s no secret that the Internet and the rise of search engines have revolutionized the way people find information over the last several decades. In particular, Google has powered much of the online revolution thanks to its intense interest in how we search, take in information, and what we do with the results of our online queries. As a result, Google is now the world’s most popular search engine and leader in the field of search algorithms and search information. When Google updates its algorithm, the world takes notice and starts its own discussions about the implications the algorithm changes have on public information.

Yet even today, some Google tools still go overlooked by the general public. While Google search, Gmail, and Google Chrome are popular with a wide variety of computer users, two of the most impressive Google tools are rarely mentioned: Ngram Viewer and Trends.

With a better understanding of these tools, writers, researchers, and people who are simply fascinated in how the world thinks can gain insights never before possible.

Here’s how they work.

Ngram Viewer
Google Ngram Viewer allows you to look up the frequency of “grams” in every book in the Google Books database. “Grams” are keywords and phrases that appear in books and other writings over time. A “bigram” is two words, such as “pen cap” or “baseball cap”, while a unigram is a single word such as “pen” or “pencap”.

The Google Books database comprises books dating back to 1800 and runs up to the year 2000. You can see the frequency of a given phrase in the entire body of books they have available, giving you an idea of how popular a term may have been over time. Essentially, Ngram Viewer gives us the opportunity to look at the quantity of word and phrase usage within a cross-section of books.

Why Ngram Matters
Books and pamphlets were the central mass media for transporting in-depth ideas during much of that time period. Radio and television did not even begin to make their mark until the 1920s (and for television, it was truly much later than that). Movies with sound were not released until the late 1920s as well. The Internet was only widespread in the last few years of that time period, and early search history was not as well documented (a point we’ll discuss more in a moment). Books were simply the best tool available for unpacking big ideas before the year 2000.

Why is that meaningful? Well, since books were the broadest method of transporting complex ideas, and individual words and phrases in conjunction made up the ideas in books, Ngram Viewer becomes a way of assessing microtrends in broadly shared ideas over those 200 years. With each chart we create in Ngram, we get a different perspective on how people thought, spoke, and spread ideas, improving our theories on collective information and psychology.

Did I mention this tool is free?

Ngram in Action
Let’s assess some generalized fields in Ngram to see it in action. Here is an Ngram search result for “business”, “politics”, and “arts” between the years 1800 and 2000.

ngram trend for social sciences

You’ll notice that the reference to “business” is far more popular than the other two, which may speak to the field being a bit more common in English practice, or may speak to the versatile nature of the word “business”. In other words, many uses of the unigram may be about “business” as a field of study or practice, but others may be more along the lines of its use as part of the phrase “business as usual”. We have no way of knowing without looking up every cliche involving the word “business” in the Ngram database.

However, it does appear that the concept of business as a whole is far more mentioned and far more popular than those of “art” or “politics”. Furthermore, the relationship between those two latter terms is fascinating, as “politics” surpassed “arts” in usage in 1884.

Then again, the term “arts” is a variation of “art”, which is much more common in usage as a whole.

ngram chart 2

“Art” shoots over “politics” by quite a bit. Not too surprising given the possibilities for the gram “art” (including its use in the phrase “the art of politics”).

Let’s look at the chart with one more variation, swapping “politics” with “political”:

The “political” nature of things seems to have taken off starting mid-twentieth century. Given that “political” is a term that can be used in a way that is not necessarily about “politics” (as in “The corporate world is extremely political”), it may be the case that the term simply increased in general use. However, this uptick is suspiciously steep, so steep that it seems more likely to have come from an increase in interest and discussion of “political” matters in the literary world. For example, the phrase “The personal is political” AKA “The private is political”, a slogan popularized during Second Wave Feminism, both may account for some of the uptick in the use of the term “political” by authors.

Google Trends
Whereas Ngram Viewer assesses words and phrases used in books, Google Trends assesses words and phrases used as Google search terms. Trends demonstrates frequency of a given search for specific words as weighted against total Google searches. In other words, Trends not only shows you comparative frequency of searches between various words or phrases, but also shows you roughly how popular those words or phrases are in context of total Google searches. While Trends doesn’t show exact number of searches per term, it does assign a weighted number that compares each specific search to the average of other search terms.

Whereas Ngram Viewer covers the years 1800-2000— a period when, as we mentioned, books were used as the main method by which in-depth ideas were spread— Trends covers the years from 2004 to the present. During years covered by the Google Trends database, the Internet has provided an immediate platform for sharing and researching ideas.

Interestingly, Google Trends also gives users the option to measure words as a “topic” rather than just search terms. Whether this means Google is measuring the word as an idea based on all of the terms related to the “topic” or if “topic” is just a synonym for “search term” is unclear.

Google Trends lets you select the terms you want to search, the time range you want to search, categories of online topics, and types of searches within Google (news searches vs. general searches vs. YouTube vs. Image vs. Shopping queries).

Trends in Action
Let’s start by looking at a single phrase assessment on Google Trends so we can see some immediate utility. Here is the search volume trend over time for “frisbee”.

Frisbee is a more popular search during summer months. Not particularly surprising, right? What may be surprising, however, is that the term “frisbee” is actually decreasing in share of overall searches! This is an interesting contrast to the claim of some people that ultimate frisbee is gaining in popularity.

However, the decline of “frisbee” as a search term does not necessarily mean that people are less interested in frisbees than they once were. Early Google searches were often keyword based. Later searches have been more semantic, phrased closer to the way people speak thanks to advancements like voice-to-text and improved geo-search capabilities. Whereas an early Google Search user may have simply typed the word “frisbee”, a modern Google user might use voice-to-text to search the phrase “buy frisbee online” or “ultimate frisbee game in Houston”.

Let’s look at “Skiing” as a subject:

As we might expect, Skiing is more popular as a search term in the winter months. It also has decreased as an overall part of the search environment over time.

Now for a less “seasonal” trend: Tarot. It has felt lately like more people are interested in Tarot, but something like that could also be a function of living in a city, being in my thirties, knowing Bohemian people, etc.

Let’s see if search interest in Tarot aligns with my experience.

Well, I’ll be dipped! Tarot searches are pretty much at an all-time high. May not be a bad time to get into the Tarot card business.

Trends for Business Owners
To see how Trends can help you if you’re a business owner, let’s look at something comparative and practical. RedShift Writers is a content writing firm, so the service we sell might be described as “Copywriting” or as “Content Marketing”. Either term alludes to elements of what we do, so when we are faced with the option of using one or the other, we have to decide which will be more effective.

It has felt over the life of our company (starting in December of 2012) that “copywriting” has become a term of the past, and that “content marketing” and other terms have become more popular. Trends can tell us whether or not my instinct on this is correct.

As it turns out, “Copywriting” is actually still the more popular term. In spite of the fact that it has been trending down while content marketing is trending up, “Copywriting” still enjoys nearly three times the searches.

Something interesting happens when we add the search term “Blogging” to the mix:

As we can see, “blogging” was a scorching hot topic on the Internet in January of 2008. Like, as hot as they come. It was a topic the whole world suddenly wanted to know about.

The popularity of “blogging” as a term correlates to some macroeconomic trends in ways that may lead to interesting potential theories. The bottom of the stock market decline during The Great Recession was March of 2008, marking a time when people were desperately looking for an advantage in the market, or new revenue streams, both of which might come about from blogging, if a person put their mind to it. Today, the term has leveled out to around the same search volume as “Copywriting”.

Fun with Trends
Trends may also be useful if we want to explore the peak of memes. Remember when everyone was making Harlem Shake videos?

If you don’t, here’s the Wiki. Go get a feel for what it is and come back. If you remember it, keep reading.

Trends can tell us the exact month the Harlem Shake peaked, and how the fad flamed out.

We’ll view one more example: seasonal search. For this query, we turn to the “NFL” as a search topic. After all, we’re from Texas. Football is pretty popular here.

Here’s the long-term search trend for “NFL”.

Two trends stand out. First, search volume is growing over time. Second, the search interest in NFL topics usually peaks in January, likely because of the Super Bowl. However, in 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2018 the Super Bowl was not the period when search interest was highest. Theorizing why that was in the case during those four years with any real insight would likely take a person who is a bigger football fan than I am, but it stood out.

Google’s Lost Years: 2000-2004
Since Ngram covers through the end of the year 2000 and Trends begins at the start of 2004, the forward-facing Google dataset is missing four years of data. Trends from this period— celebrities, products, memes, recreation, movies, etc.— are not available to us for in-depth analysis, so we’re missing the high-water mark for post-Y2K analysis: The Strokes, Outkast, and That Seventies Show, among other things.

What Trends Interest You?
What can Ngrams and Trends teach us? They are mostly good for exploring interesting trends. It is limited, though, because correlation of word usage or search term frequency does not necessarily translate to causation.

We’ll continue to investigate these tools and other tools along the way and share more on what we learn and observe. Our hope is that these insights will continue, over time, to yield something useful to everyone in the RedShift Writers community.

Got an interesting idea for Trends, Ngram, other Google tools, or something else altogether? Reach out and let us know at contact@redshiftwriters.com.

RedShift Writers: Stories change history.

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Daniel J. CohenGoogle Ngram & Google Trends: Two Google Tools No One Ever Talks About
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Volkswagen Replaces Bad Slogan with No Slogan as PR Crisis Continues

How was your 2015? Can’t be any worse than Volkswagen’s. The company has lost more than 1/3 of its market value in the wake of one of the biggest corporate business scandals (to date) the 21st century.

In case you have been living under a rock (or a Beetle), here’s the short version, as explained by BBC News:volkswagen-cars-logo-emblem

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had a “defeat device” – or software – in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. The German car giant has since admitted cheating emissions tests in the US.

VW has had a major push to sell diesel cars in the US, backed by a huge marketing campaign trumpeting its cars’ low emissions. The EPA’s findings cover 482,000 cars in the US only, including the VW-manufactured Audi A3, and the VW models Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat. But VW has admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide, including eight million in Europe, are fitted with the so-called “defeat device”.

The company has also been accused by the EPA of modifying software on the 3 litre diesel engines fitted to some Porsche and Audi as well as VW models. VW has denied the claims, which affect at least 10,000 vehicles

In November, VW said it had found “irregularities” in tests to measure carbon dioxide emissions levels that could affect about 800,000 cars in Europe – including petrol vehicles. However, in December it said that following investigations, it had established that this only affected about 36,000 of the cars it produces each year.”

Basically, the company not only cheated on its exams, but also cheated on its exams 11 million times, resulting in a lost generation of kosher cars for the legendary company. Volkswagen has made desperate strides to recover and refresh its image, including (presumably) pressuring its boss into resignation.

VW’s most recent effort is to address the core elements of its brand position, including its tagline. For years, the company has featured its iconic logo with “Das Auto” written underneath, which translates to “The Car”.

The “Das Auto” slogan isn’t exactly inventive; it’s something a CEO would list in his or her five-year vision for where the brand is going to be. However, it doesn’t define a feature or benefit of the product. Rather, it simply proclaims itself alone in one of the world’s most well-defined and competitive industry. Started by Ford and dominated today by the Toyota-Honda-Hyundai triumvirate, the auto industry is hardly shaking in its boots at the sight of VW.

Furthermore, a “car” is what the product actually is. It’s obvious to consumers at this point what the car’s most general category is (it’s a car!). The slogan does less to declare itself superior and more to seemingly whine about how it is still relevant (“We’re a car! We drive! Buy us!”).

To VW’s credit- what little they can be granted at the moment- they seem to agree and have blamed the old, ousted head honcho for the slogan, according to one manager:

“According to a manager who was there, Volkswagen brand chief Herbert Diess described the Winterkorn-era slogan – which could suggest that VW alone can define the modern motor car – as absolutist.

Such an image of regal arrogance ill fits the reality of VW today: a company facing huge costs from recalling and modifying cars to meet emissions regulations, plus likely regulatory fines and a welter of lawsuits.

Volkswagen needed to show humility, the manager said, and the slogan ‘Das Auto’ was pretentious. The old slogan also failed to convey VW’s technological ambitions in areas such as electrically-powered vehicles, the manager said, requesting anonymity.”

But as bad as “Das Auto” is, VW is now moving toward an even simpler and less effective tagline: the name of the company. VW will present its logo- a logo that has the initials of the company- with “Volkswagen” written underneath it. Talk about redundant! The new approach hogs the entirety of the space normally reserved for brand positioning and fills it with what is essentially the same information. Twice!

This is shameful in several respects. First, you can’t brand your way out of a scandal; Firestone learned that the hard way. You’re paying for your own marketing, and consumers are smarter than people give them credit for.

But more to the point, the actual brand decision made here is a major mistake. With the abundance of interesting elements of the VW brand- cool shapes and colors of vehicles, good MPG, innovation safety- there were any number of concepts that could have served as an overriding tagline. Instead, the space next to the logo repeats what consumers already know. It’s almost as if the executives in the boardroom determined that a boring look would result in less news at a time when the company could use a break in the news cycle. If that’s the thinking in it works, we can all throw out the PR and brand positioning playbook. More than likely, it will flop and the press will bat VW around in the public eye for an even longer period of time. At best, the impact will be nonexistent.

To be fair, now is not the time for an earth-moving slogan. But if that’s how it’s going to be, then don’t announce a slogan change. Don’t discuss the brand first. Just talk about how to keep your product from violating the law and focus on repaying those who are about to launch a massive, crippling class action lawsuit against you.

Moral of the story? Bad PR can devastate you, but bad brand marketing doesn’t help.

Do you agree? Disagree? What would you do in VW’s position? Let me know in the comments, especially if you have a different perspective. I love those.

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Daniel J. CohenVolkswagen Replaces Bad Slogan with No Slogan as PR Crisis Continues

Five Ways Content Writers Can Create a Better Client Relationship

The content writer’s job is to create language that compels others to act. No matter what medium or what purpose the content has, good content maintains that characteristic and leverages the power of words to reinforce a particular mindset or action.

However, not all copy ends up as powerful as it should be. While the writer in the process often tussles with editors, creative directors, strategists, the legal department and a bevy of others in the organization to word content just right, it seldom hits the presses (or internet) completely in tact.

On the other hand, writers are perfectly capable of guiding clients in the right direction and ending up with the content that will best represents the company or cause. Sometimes, it just takes a little creative flair in your client-content writer relationship to sharpen your language to its very best.
Here are five tactics writers can use to help clients get the very best results.

1) Encourage a push-pull relationship.
Your job as a writer or marketing consultant is to make sure clients are able to make fully informed decisions. While one decision may be superior to another, knowing the right decision in the moment isn’t always possible without an iterative process involving both sides of the fence: the experts and the creatives.

Involving clients deeply in the messaging process will not only create better results but also improve your overall client relationships.

2) Train the team to let their hands go.
Much of the push back content writers get is a result of a client balancing interests in the copy. However, a smart content writer can pave the way for approval early on by explaining the power of precision copy that takes a strong position rather than balancing opinions or voice to the point that it becomes sanitized and plain.

Teach the power of taking a sharp, clear position and staking a claim rather than balancing the message for all involved.

3) Set the expectations early.
Develop an understanding with clients regarding your process as well as what can be expected from a first draft. If you have done a good job developing your discovery process, most clients will find what you do valuable and take pleasure in getting involved in your discovery process.

An involved client is more likely to approve your copy- hands down.

4) Keep your eye on the prize.
In the end, the client and the content writer want the same thing: well-conceived copy that will get the job done. Keep in mind the harmonious, win-win nature of the task at hand and everyone will prosper.

5) Give clients homework.
Not busy work, mind you. Your clients are busy. They have a business to run.

Yet a certain degree of homework is the sign of an involved writer as well as a solid content process.  Offer clients a step by step path that goes beyond the standard sit=down to indicate true commitment.

Want more tips for free lancers that go beyond the standard client assistance? Check out 50 Rules for Renegade Free Lance Writers.

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Daniel J. CohenFive Ways Content Writers Can Create a Better Client Relationship

RedShift Writers Shift Ahead Presser 2-24 – RedShift Clients Make Big Moves

RedShift Writers prides itself not just on providing you with incredible content and thoughts about how to craft better writing for business and personal pleasures, but also on what is to come, where resources lie in the City of Houston, and how you can get involved in the business community.

On that note, we present week two of the  Shift Ahead presser from RedShift Writers. Here’s what happening with our city, our clients and our projects.

  • This past weekend, writers, designers and stakeholders coordinated at the Houston Writeathon to knock several projects for the city right out of the park. From pets to craft brew to the mayor’s social media feed and business procurement improvements for the city, everyone pitched in, picked up a keyboard and helped out tremendously in making the event a huge success.Now, Open Houston has announced that the City of Houston Hackathon is back! The 2nd Annual Houston Hackathon was officially announced last week for late May. We can already here the coders in the city cracking their knuckles in anticipation for a night-long coding adventure!Check out the Meetup group.
  • The Executive Entrepreneur Hour with John “JonyProfit” Whaley is launching its newest feature: a socially focused entrepreneur segment featuring Jeff Reichman of January Advisors. EE Hour is PUMPED about the segment, which will focus entirely on entrepreneurs doing interesting things to benefit good causes in the City of Houston. Tune in this Saturday at 2 – usual showtime – on 92.1 FM to hear who’s helping who and why.
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Daniel J. CohenRedShift Writers Shift Ahead Presser 2-24 – RedShift Clients Make Big Moves

RedShift Writers Shift Ahead Presser 2-17 – Houston Writeathon Ready for Liftoff

RedShift Writers prides itself not just on providing you with incredible content and thoughts about how to craft better writing for business and personal pleasures, but also on what is to come, where resources lie in the City of Houston, and how you can get involved in the business community.

On that note, we present the first ever weekly Shift Ahead presser from RedShift Writers. Here’s what happening with our city, our clients and our projects.

  • At 10 AM this Saturday 2/22, something very special is happening in the Montrose Public Library. It’s an event that indicates the true power of writers. It’s an event that unifies creatives to solve everyday problems for Houstonians.

It’s the Houston Writeathon!

The Houston Writeathon will feature some of the leading civic innovation thinkers in the city and gather dozens of the city’s best writers, designers and stakeholders, all for one beautiful, engaging and civic-minded cause: improving the communication of important information to Houstonians. Co-organized by some of Houston’s leading writers and startup leaders, the Houston Writeathon will offer citizens of all varieties a chance to unify, make a difference, network, drink cocktails and write (of course!).

For more information, check out www.HoustonWriteathon.com.

Tune in to FM 92.1 Saturday at 2 PM, or see www.eehour.com for more details on how to download the app, listen online or watch live on UStream.

  • Artists, entrepreneurs, small businesses, musicians, event planners, club owners and anyone else with an interest in attention for events, keep your ears open: Whispers suggest That Video Magazine is on the verge of releasing a HUGE event sponsorship budget. The package is still in early formation, but we can guarantee you there will be enough support in the package to make major waves in the events scene in Houston and have an impact in its genesis town, New York City. TVM has a knack for blowing up events and getting the word out with killer video content. Expect big things and be ready to bid for huge sponsorship dollars.
  • Michele Price’s #BREAKTHROUGH #BBSRadio episode this Monday features a discussion on 26 Ironclad Relationship Laws Driving Business Success. Awesome host and sure to be an awesome show. Check out the landing page.
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Daniel J. CohenRedShift Writers Shift Ahead Presser 2-17 – Houston Writeathon Ready for Liftoff