The rise and rise of the iPhone

This post is about the number of searches about the iPhone not the number of searches from an iphone which is a wholly different (and even more interesting) subject.

The annual release of a new iPhone model has become a significant media event and speculation over new features a favorite of topic of technology journalists, enthusiasts and consumers.

Apple follow a relatively consistent annual pattern of releases and it is therefore possible to compare over the five years since the launch of the original iPhone in 2007 just how excited the public are about each subsequent iPhone release by looking at search data.

To do this we can look first at the number of searches including ‘iphone’ since 2007.

This graph shows the number of Google searches containing the term ‘iphone’ made within the United States as reported by the Google Insights for Search tool. You can view the original data here.

US Google Searches for iPhone

We can see unmistakable peaks in interest around the time that each new iPhone is introduced.

However to truly understand the level of consumer interest we must factor in that the user base of iPhones has grown significantly, Apple have sold over 243 million units worldwide as of September 2012. These growing absolute numbers will result in cumulatively more searches that relate to care and maintenance rather than the interest in the coming model that we are trying to measure.

Therefore we can compare the variance in searches for the two weeks prior to the launch, with the two weeks of the launch to isolate consumer interest from the background noise.

The ‘Week of launch’ table show the number of Google searches including the term ‘iphone’ made within the U.S. for each of the launch dates, where the greatest number (approximately 37 million) is represented by 100.

Model Announcement
date
Preceeding two
week average
Week of
launch
% Change
iPhone 1st Generation 09/01/2007 0 20
iPhone 2nd Generation 03/03/2008 9.5 11 16%
iPhone 3G 09/06/2008 11.5 25 117%
iPhone 3Gs 08/06/2009 15 29 93%
iPhone 4 07/07/2010 42.5 37 -13%
iPhone 4s 04/08/2011 50 82 64%
iPhone 5 12/09/2012 42 100.00 138%

The figures reveal a very mixed picture for each of the models.

The 1st generation model was quite popular, when it was announced to Apple’s already loyal user base, wheras the very similar 2nd Generation was largely unnoticed.

The iPhone 3G was the first device to generate significant consumer interest, with the 3GS following close behind.

From the figures above it would seem that the iPhone 4 was received indifferently by consumers, however this is actually misleading. Search volume for ‘iphone’ actually doubled on the underlying base around one month prior to the announcement (difficult but possible to see if you look closely at the graph above), hence the lack of change or even slight drop in % versus the preceding two weeks. This nuance is what led to the wrong conclusion in this otherwise clever piece of investment analysis.

The iPhone 4s was a new record in absolute numbers, more akin to the sharp peak and fall for the 3GS, with the strong search volume corresponding to record numbers of pre-orders for this model.

The clear winner here however is the iPhone 5, despite arguably being a simple iteration on previous iPhones is in fact by far the phone that consumers are most excited about. Early sales data backs this up with search volume being more than double the 4s.

What we can therefore conclude;

  • That pre-announcement search volume correlates with sales in the days immediately following the launch
  • Even as the models become arguably more generic, consumers are not tiring of the iPhone range
  • Although absolute numbers of searches are increasing over time the level of consumer interest in each new model varies significantly

It will be interesting to see how long Apple can continue to generate the kind of fevered anticipation for it’s mobile releases that other consumer brands can only envy.

Search data as an economic indicator

Official statistics are usually seen as the most reliable source of economic health, however due to their comprehensive nature they are often published well after the situation they describe.

In contrast private and commercial studies are typically faster but taken from small and skewed samples and are therefore statistically dubious. Bridging the gap between the two with high volume, reduced bias and fast output, search data can act as a highly effective economic indicator.

This 2011 Bank of England paper on using search data as an economic indicator, uses well constructed examples to demonstrate the principle. It shows that UK searches for ‘estate agents‘ correlates with house price movements, with more searches (mainly by buyers) portending higher prices. It also illustrates searches for ‘jsa‘ (Job Seekers Allowance, i.e. unemployment benefit) correlate strongly with and can predict official unemployment data.

To demonstrate the principle even more robustly we can look at the much larger U.S. labor market. Here we can see clearly that the searches for ‘jobs’ within the U.S. are directly correlated with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rate for 16+ US citizens.

Graph of the proportion of Google searches from within the United States including the word ‘<em>jobs</em>’ versus the BLS unadjusted 16+ citizens unemployment rate.

This graph shows the proportion of Google searches from within the United States including the word ‘jobs’ versus the unadjusted unemployment rate.

We have excluded those searches including ‘steve‘ to remove the effect of the iconic technologist Steve Jobs from the overall ‘jobs’ figures. Something it appears the Bank of England forgot in it’s study, though it does warn “users with entirely different intentions could enter very similar search queries”.

It’s clear to see that as unemployment rises during the 2008 ‘credit crunch’ recession the proportion of people using the Internet for job seeking rises proportionately.

As the Bank Of England study points out there are numerous possibilities for measuring economic health using search data including the demand for durable goods, interest in travel etc. Measuring jobs is only one of them, albeit a compelling example.

Tracking a brand with keyword research

Historically brands have invested heavily in understanding the ‘awareness’ of their product. This is a time consuming, expensive and often statistically dubious process.

Querying search engines for the number of times a brand is searched for can provide a significantly better gauge of a brand’s awareness among it’s target population.

Let’s take as a simple example the Canadian airline market. Canada’s commercial airways are a two-horse race between Air Canada & WestJet who vie for the domestic market.

In June 2012 there were 368,000 Google searches from within Canada containing ‘westjet’ versus 2,740,000 containing ‘air canada’. So Air Canada appears a clear winner.

But a closer look reveals that there were 1,830,000 additional searches containing ‘west jet’. Not the brand’s approved name but nearly 5 times more popular.

So if we compare again but this time including the additional ‘west jet’ searches the score is 2,198,000 for WestJet versus 2,740,000 for Air Canada, still lower but much closer.

The lesson here is that consumers can’t be relied upon to search for your approved brand term, always consider including misspellings. This is particularly the case if you have a name which can be easily misunderstood.

For example mobile phone retailer Phones4U has a weird and wonderful presence in the mind’s of consumers.

Phones4U brand terms UK August 2012 Broad Match Google Searches
Phones4U brand terms Search volume
phones for u 823,000
phones 4 u 673,000
phones 4u 673,000
phone 4 u 550,000
phones for you 246,000
phones 4 you 74,000
phone4u 33,100
fones 4 u 6,600

 

Or if you have spent years educating your market about a different name, witness the 5,500 searches per month for ‘midland bank’ despite former bank ‘ The Midland Bank’ being wholly subsumed by the HSBC in 1992.

Geography

Every time a search is made it comes from an IP address which gives a very approximate indication of the searchers location.

Armed with this Google can also represent the interest in a brand, relative to all the other searches being made, geographically.

July 2012 Google Phrase Match searches for ‘west jet

A heat map showing July 2012 Google Phrase Match searches for 'west jet'
This heat map, perhaps unsurprisingly, shows how WestJet is stronger in the West of Canada, it’s home market.

Caveats

An important caveat is that many people will have cause to return to your website for transactional reasons e.g. an online backing customer checking their account, or an airline customer checking in.

Thus brand term searches don’t always accurately represent your brand’s popularity versus a brand with out similar online functionality.

Because of this lack of visibility into the ‘frequency’ per member of the searching population the number of brand term searches is best used as an abstract measurement between similar businesses.

Also, as ever, it is also important to consider synonyms. To use the hackneyed example – while ‘apple’ might represent the consumer technology behemoth, it may also be a search for a record company, a flavor, or even a humble piece of fruit.

Conclusion

Brand term search is, used carefully an incredibly useful, statistically valid and near free indicator of your brand’s popularity versus that of a competitor.

To coin a phrase

When a new phrase is invented it makes it’s way in to the lexicon, and hence searches, at varying speeds and with varying longevity.

An example of a phrase starting small and gathering momentum is ‘responsive design’, a term used by web designers to refer to pages that render attractively in a variety of devices and considered, at the time of writing, the gold standard in web design.

The term responsive design was first coined by designer Ethan Marcotte on web design blog ‘A List Apart’ on May 25th 2010. You can see from this graph of worldwide Google searches containing ‘responsive design‘ that the idea gained little attention until early in the following year, when as the concept was propagated by other prominent web designers a larger population decided to first understand and then implement their responsively designed websites.

Graph of responsive design searches

Conversely when the already somewhat prominent Clint Eastwood gave a bizarre speech at a political rally berating an empty chair (symbolizing current U.S. president Barack Obama) it gave rise to the term ‘Eastwooding’ where people comically berate empty chairs that spread quickly via social media.

This graph (this time just showing search data from the United States shows the term ‘Responsive design’ (orange) verus ‘Eastwooding’ (green).

A graph showing responsive design versus eastwooding searches
Although the growth in this term is fast, it’s often the case that Internet memes have a longer life than you might expect. Witness for example the surprisingly resilient ‘All Your Base Are Belong To Us’ Japanese videogame meme. The phrase ‘all your base’ as of August 2012 was still appearing in almost 50,000 Google searches per month worldwide, an impressive 14 years after it first began to appear outside of it’s video game roots in 1998.

By 2024 it’s likely that ‘Responsive Design’ will have sunk out of the public consciousness, but people may, possibly, be still seeking out ways to shout at chairs.

An introduction

This blog is about Internet search and how billions of searches by hundreds of millions of people can help us understand the world in interesting and useful new ways.

Although it has hitherto been used almost exclusively by online marketers (my own background), keyword research is equally useful for entrepreneurs, politicians, policy makers, academics, market researchers and product managers.

This blog will therefore attempt to;

  1. Demonstrate exactly how keyword research can be used for more than just online marketing
  2. Explain how anyone can conduct keyword research
  3. Share interesting examples of the insights keyword research on society, business, celebrity, technology and politics.

My name is Chris Reynolds and I have been conducting keyword research professionally since 2003. I currently work as Global Digital Strategy Manager for a large international corporation based in Zürich, Switzerland. I’m also co-founder of UK based Clever Biscuit Ltd. Any views in this blog are my own and not those of my employer or company.

I hope you find this blog interesting and useful. Thanks for reading!