In his role as senior economist at Google, Dr. Qing Wu uncovers economic and consumer behavior from search trends.
Prior to joining Google nine years ago, Wu was recruited to the Gap, where he said he was impressed with the beautiful people in the building. “It’s such a different crowd that I am used to. I joined the Gap and missed the IPO of Google. Lesson learned,” he said.
Over the past nine years, Wu has been monitoring, understanding and discovering what’s driving Google’s search trends. He was the one who coined the phrase, “Google as the barometer of the world.”
Take Valentine’s Day, for example. He pointed out that women’s searches peaked around Feb. 13 (women are shoppers and planners), while men’s (who shop at the last minute) peaked on Feb. 14.
He asked the audience if they remembered the first thing they ever bought online. People in the audience called out “books” and “music,” and then “airline tickets” and “cameras.” Wu said the percentage of queries related to air travel and consumer electronics have been declining the last few years because these sectors are maturing “and you can’t find travel agencies anymore.” The percentage of apparel queries peaked between 2010 and 2012. “There was an acceleration of e-commerce for apparel a few years ago…but in the last year and a half, it’s actually plateaued. It didn’t go further up,” he said. Now people are using mobile a lot more and using apps more, but Google can’t measure the app query search. “Everybody’s talking about e-commerce and the multidevice world,” he said. Now, you have mobile, tablets (that are used mostly in the night), and desktop. “They can shop and research anytime. Google has made a lot of effort in the past few years offering cross-devices solutions,” he said.
During the key shopping season between Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2013, mobile search exceeded desktop, said Wu. On Cyber Monday, people returned to work and shopped from their office and desktop, and desktop was greater than mobile. “What’s going to happen this year? I don’t know yet. But there’s a clear sign that mobile usage is accelerating,” he said.
Search also becomes heightened around the holiday season. Google is able to see huge search spikes on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. “I think this is due to merchants giving a lot of discounts online, and the online shopping experience is a lot better than it used to be, the return policies are better, and there’s free shipping, ” said Wu. He said countries such as China, Brazil and the U.K. are also creating key shopping days to have shopping sprees for consumers.
Wu said searches vary by seasonality. Often manufacturers release clothing at the same time all over the country because localization is very difficult. But if you search leather jackets, for example, you’ll find that in Texas, leather jackets will dip in the summer but peak in December. In New York, leather jackets have two peaks: in March and October. In California, leather jackets peak in December, which makes it more similar to Texas. This should give manufacturers ideas on when to release fall season and winter season clothes because weather patterns are so different, he said.
Wu also was surprised to learn that fashion trends don’t necessarily start in New York or Los Angeles. In a search for maxiskirts, he found that the trend actually started in Utah, and then spread out across the Midwest and Northeast, before spreading all over the country. Cropped tops and high-waisted shorts started in Texas and Florida.
He believes data can help tell the right story and can help retailers with seasonality, merchandising, inventory planning, store planning and localization.
It even reveals big national trends. Case in point: Among the top 10 most-searched Halloween costumes this year? “‘Frozen’ dominated everything,” he said.