When I was first introduced to Google’s search engine (way way back in 2004), all my peers and teachers at library school said it was no good for business-related research. They insisted databases like Factiva, ProQuest, or Dialog were the only way to go.
Times have changed, dramatically, and now one of the first tools we turn to as competitive intelligence researchers is Google, along with its various topic-specific searches, such as patent search or news search. Traditional databases have their place, of course, and we use them extensively. But without running some creative searches in Google, we’d miss relevant information that can support our clients, either directly or by missing out on the opportunity for Google to help open up new areas for us to research and explore further.
Given its importance to our work, we are laying out a few key things about Google search:
- How does it work?
- What are its limitations and drawbacks?
- How can you use it for competitive intelligence research?
- What information can Google reveal about about the McRib sandwich?
How does Google search work?
The seemingly simple Google search bar hides a lot under the hood. Behind every search are algorithms that assess relevancy and authority of web pages. They recently patented technology that might soon be able to tell you if the pair of hiking boots you just uploaded a picture of are good for hiking Mt. Fuji. At this time, Google has five key factors that determine the results that are returned when you click enter:
- The meaning of your query
- Relevance of webpages
- Quality of content
- Usability of webpages
- Context and settings
Google’s drawbacks and limitations
Google can’t be the only source a researcher uses for competitive research, and every time it is used, one certainly need to be aware of two issues in particular: its biases and the nature of modern web search engines.
Much has been written about Google’s biases, but I was particularly interested to read this Wall Street Journal article on Google’s search bias discussing how its algorithm tweaks, exclusion lists and the way it structures its code means decisions are being made that inherently result in bias. This makes sense to me, as a company that can control how searches are returned will ultimately have the ability to determine what should be returned. We are letting Google decide what is authority, what is relevant, and what is high quality. This rebuttal argues Google is actually doing a good job with mitigating bias, especially relative to libraries, and suggests the WSJ article is seizing on an opportunity to make the large tech company look onerous to garner attention. I expect the truth lies somewhere in the middle – Google is striving for minimal bias and calling out Google for having bias is definitely attention grabbing.
The second issue applies to any major search engine: anyone can publish on the internet, and search engines do not audit sources nor guarantee accuracy. At the end of the day, Google is enables finding information shared on the Internet utilizing several of their algorithms. But layered on top of this is the fact that there is a $40bn market in SEO consulting, which enables companies to position themselves onto the first page of Google search results. This means that when Google is used for factual research, we must be certain to dig below the first page of results, and always check information sources before using anything for a client.
How to leverage Google searches for competitive intelligence
As long as limitations are kept in mind, Google remains a powerful competitive intelligence tool. Here are some of the ways we find Google searching to be the most impactful when answering client questions:
Using advanced search to the fullest
As with any database, a researcher will get better, more thorough results if they familiarize themselves with its advanced features. These are Google’s. These are some of the features we use most frequently:
- Site search allows search within a website. If a researcher wants to check what a particular company is saying about a topic, this is what they should use. For example, if they want to find what McDonald’s has said about their mythical McRib sandwich (rather than looking at fan pages like this handy McRib Locator) they can type site:mcdonalds.com mcrib into the Google search bar, or access this site search function via the Advanced Search page.
- Filetype search allows researchers to search for results in specific file formats (i.e. .pdf, .ppt, .doc, and many others). We use this regularly to find official PDFs or PowerPoints that mention a particular concept. The latter are often company presentations and can help provide data points we are not able to obtain from other sources. For example, a McDonald’s corporate presentation could tell a researcher a lot about the McRib and its future. For this, one can search filetype:pdf mcrib or filetype:ppt mcrib or again access it through the Advanced search page.
- We also use date filtering and sorting to search for specific time periods or to only view the most recent results, depending whether we are looking for recent or historical results. A researcher can set this up when they are doing their search, or when they refine search results. Maybe we only want to know when the McRib has been mentioned in the past week to see if there is anything new coming out!
Using Google’s topic specific searches
Websites aren’t the only results that can be searched in Google. Other types of searches we turn to include:
Google indexes full-text documents from 22 patent offices globally, including US, Europe, Japan, and China. Do you want to know what a competitor is working on? See what they have recently patented. Has another fast-food company explored technology for boneless ribs?
Search for news items via Google News. Google is not our favorite database for news, as there are so many great news-specific databases out there that allow for greater levels of organizing and finding results, but it will do in a pinch to find something quickly.
Using Google Image search is a great trick for finding graphs containing hard-to-find statistics or metrics on competitors. We also use it to find things like organizational charts, product images, and other insightful tidbits. Keep in mind that images found in Google may be fully protected by their copyright holders and not available for a researcher’s use. Maybe a picture of the McRib will reveal something about its appeal.
Do you want to understand how popular the McRib is, and where it is the most popular? A Google Trend search can help in understanding rising trends related to a competitor or a market by showing keyword search volume (or how often people are searching for a particular phrase) over time.
Searching this will return journal articles, and this is particularly useful when a researcher wants to know if a company is publishing articles on a certain topic. Given the melding of corporate and academic activities, there are often lots of competitive insights one can glean from looking at academic articles. And if you think there isn’t much that has been written academically about the McRib? You’d be wrong – there are 440 results in Google Scholar search!
Google has come a long, long way from its early days. The power it offers, both with its core search function and its custom topic search functions allows it to be a very useful tool for competitive intelligence research. At HelloInfo, it is one of the many tools we use for in-depth, comprehensive, effective secondary research.
Are you interested in learning more about our expertise in conducting competitive intelligence? Schedule a call with us. And if you would like support in designing custom McRib searches, HelloInfo Founder Tanya would love to help!