What do the academics say? Using internet search volumes to track changes in the importance of political issues

God versus Devil Google news search resultsWelcome to the latest in my occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – whether the volume of internet searches for different topics can be used to track changes in how important voters view the issue to be.

For example, does an increase in search volume on immigration go with an increasing importance being attached to the issue and, conversely, if you see a change in the volume of searches on an issue does that tell you what’s happening to the issue priorities of voters?

Some of the time is the answer, at least according to Jonathan Mellon in “Internet Search Data and Issue Salience: The Properties of Google Trends as a Measure of Issue Salience” (Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 2014, Vol. 24 No.1):

Weekly Google search data are tested against Gallup’s “most important problem” question. The article finds that the salience of four issues, fuel prices, the economy, immigration and terrorism, can be measured in the United States using search data … from 2004 t0 2010.


In this study, citizens’ concerns over three issues that were mentioned by a substantial number of Gallup respondents could not be measured with Internet data: dissatisfaction with government, healthcare and the Iraq conflict. It could be the case that because these issues are very broad in scope, people have difficulty translating their concerns into specific Google search terms. However, a more plausible explanation is that these issues generate a wide variety of searches that are difficult for researchers to identify…

[For example] the public discourse on healthcare changed substantially from 2004 to 2010 with terms such as “death panels” and “Obamacare” being used around the Affordable Care Act but not in earlier debates about healthcare. The difficulty in measuring the importance of healthcare is probably not because people are struggling to search for information on it, but because the search terms they use are very time specific.

You can read the other posts in the What do the academics say? series here.

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