Who Cares What You Search for Online? I Do.

Never thought I would write these words, but Google’s 2016 food trends report is pretty fascinating. You’re probably familiar with Google Trends. It’s a free tool found online used to research the popularity of just about anything you like. If you want to know whether the spice turmeric is the subject of more online searches now than it was a few years ago, you can learn that easily. (Turns out, turmeric is far more popular than before, and people can’t figure out what to do with it once they buy it.)

The Google food trends report hands you turmeric data on a silver platter and serves up as much additional data as you like. You can see that after August 2013, searches for Miley Cyrus tailed off dramatically, to be replaced with people searching for information on Caitlyn Jenner. Right now in certain states, people are searching for the words gun shop, while in other states, people are searching for gun control.

There was a time not long ago where we could have talked ourselves into believing that such search data was pretty close to being meaningless.

Who cared about what you searched for online?

The difference now is that the numbers have accrued, becoming layers and layers of data that cannot be ignored. Netflix has built a substantial part of its business model on surfacing what you will like in movies and tv based upon your choices of other movies and tv. They use this not only to build a home screen for you that displays the fifty shows that you will be most likely to like, but also to connect groups of people into cohorts.

Viewers who like House of Cards are also likely to like the FX comedy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

This sounds like an oddball connection until you start to make more of them like it. Bicyclists are likely to be coffee drinkers, so if you want to market coffee, you might give away samples of your roast at bicycle meetups on weekends. People who catalog art online, at sites like Behance and ARTDEX, are likely to value underrepresented artists, so in your blogs, you might want to mention the Women’s Museum. People who like mid-priced wine are more likely to be adventurous in their food choices in restaurants, and when they try something new to eat, they might also be willing to try a new kind of wine. Yours, for instance, if you are a winemaker. The people who want to close the gender pay gap often find themselves talking to, posting, and retweeting those who care about flextime work and parental leave. People who like to track their fitness statistics with apps may find themselves in an unlikely cohort with teachers, who like to use online apps, but to track their students’ work instead of their fitness.

What makes these connections potent is their staying power. Sure, we can watch hashtags trend on Twitter and Facebook, but trends, being trends, rise and decay. On the other hand, connections grow stronger. Cohorts tend to deepen with time. We can depend on them, enough, even, to spend an advertising budget on them. Discover cohorts and you will make unlikely connections, and in their intersection, you will find online neighborhoods. The people in these neighborhoods, often diverse and interconnected in surprising ways, can be receptive to what you have to say.

Large social movements, formerly as invisible as currents of air, are now measurable and we don’t need the distance of much history at all to see them take shape. We can know what goes on in an instant in social media, but it’s far more interesting to look at the long term.