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Study finds predictive power of search
A new study claims web search statistics can be used to predict human behaviour - from record sales to the spread of influenza.

But the researchers also found 'traditional' information sources are just as effective, and in cases more useful, at spotting trends.

Sharad Goel and colleagues from Yahoo! Research in the United States wanted to see if web search query logs could be used to predict how well something is going to do in the future.

To test the idea, they looked at box office movie revenues, video game sales, and Billboard Hot 100 songs over various periods in 2009 to see if internet search counts could accurately predict what will succeed and what won't.

Writing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Goel's team found search-based predictions did provide a good indicator of real outcomes for both movies and video games sales. But they were only moderately correlated with outcomes for music.

They then compared the data with predictions based on traditional information, such as production budgets, critics' ratings and prequel revenues.
'Turning points'

They found these traditional predictors did manage to outperform search-based predictions for movies, music, and sequel video games. But, search query data did better than traditional methods in predicting the success of non-sequel video game revenues.

Goel says sudden changes in search volume may help to identify "turning points". He says this type of information may prove useful for applications such as financial analysis, where a minimal performance edge can be valuable.

Matthew Sheppard, research and development manager of Canberra-based IT company Funnelback says the Yahoo! paper shows web searches are useful for areas of market analysis where there is not a lot of previous data.

"They found looking at web search numbers was very effective at predicting the success of a video game where they didn't have information about how well the previous one did or how much money has been spent on producing it," says Sheppard.

"It also shows critics weren't doing a very good job."

Sheppard says the study also demonstrated search queries are better at predicting how music would perform on the charts.

"It could account for the volatility inherent with songs that could spike very quickly," he says.
Medical data

According to Sheppard another area of interest is using web searches to track flu trends.

"The paper found the data produced during the H1N1 influenza scare was very effective, filling in for lags in official data being available," he says.

Sheppard says overall the paper shows normal methods work fine except when there are sudden changes in trends.

"But search data will continue growing into an important analysis tool, so long as you can get the data from the likes of Google and Yahoo!"

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