Google searches mirror the economy

What consumers search for, and how they do it, tends to mirror their financial health. Advertisers are taking note.

By Beth Kowitt, reporter


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- When the stock market goes up these days, your 401(k) isn't the only thing that will follow. So, too, does the volume of Google searches for economic terms.

In fact, Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) has found that queries for terms like "investments" closely mirror the performance of the stock market. And if you're spending a lot of time shopping around for a new credit card, you're probably a credit-worthy consumer that any card issuer would be happy to serve.

Google says these insights, gleaned from a new study about the way U.S. consumers shop for financial services, suggest that the way we search -- not just the keywords we search -- say a lot about us.

"The broader issue and the broader trends that we're seeing are that the financial landscape is really, really complicated," says Jon Kaplan, Google's financial services industry director. "The complexity of the financial situation right now is causing people to search more, and we see that."

The queries aren't just a bellwether for the economy but also a barometer of public sentiment. This tie between search and psyche has not been lost on advertisers, who believe they can market more effectively by capitalizing on this connection. Google has responded by scrutinizing the ways users search for products.

This intense focus on the psychology of search has emerged as sites like Google have become more integral to everything consumers do, says Shar VanBoskirk, an analyst with Forrester Research. "The search engine is supplanting content sites in many cases," she says. "People are starting any decision they make with a search."

Search terms. For online advertisers this means targeting ads to specific search terms is more important than ever. Google started hearing from financial companies that they were looking for the "right kind of customers." (Translation: Deadbeats need not apply.) These firms wanted to direct their ads to credit worthy people, says Kaplan. This prompted Google to look more closely at search funnels -- the path users take during the search process for a product.

Through research company Compete, Google undertook a study that examined the ways that a 2 million U.S. online consumer panel searched and shopped for credit cards between January and February 2009.

The research showed that people with high FICO scores, and thus the more credit worthy customers, shop around more but apply less frequently than lower FICO score searchers. Applications among high FICO shoppers increased significantly for those that searched at least 10 times.

"One of the high level themes that came out of this is that people with high FICO scores are spending a lot more time shopping than they used to," says Kaplan. "There's a much longer time to conversion or application."

Consumers with better credit searched specific terms such as brands and rewards and were more likely to shop directly on an issuer's site. People with lower FICO scores applied to several different cards, utilized the term "best credit cards" at a third of the rate of higher FICO shoppers, and were more likely to use aggregator sites.

Ad strategies. In response what some of Google's advertisers have done is select search terms such as specific brands or "travel rewards," says Kaplan. Even though the consumer's search might not immediately convert into a credit card application, the company's ad is more likely to appear to a high FICO score searcher.

While the results are obviously useful to advertisers, VanBoskirk with Forrester notes that consumers prefer to see ads that are more relevant to them. But targeting shouldn't give advertisers the license to overly bombard searchers, she says.

Along with changing how companies direct their ads, Kaplan says the results of the study might also change the way they reach out to potential customers. The sheer volume of queries from consumers indicates that they're looking to more than just apply for an account when they search. They're also looking for information.

"Maybe one of the things that credit card companies should consider is doing some more educational content and comparison on their site," he says. "I think we'll see some more of that coming out as advertisers adopt this." To top of page

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