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When a person types “Mercedes” into a Google search bar, does it mean they are likely to buy one, or does it simply mean they want to print off photos and hang them on the wall?

Marketers for Mercedes-Benz would love to know, as would marketers for any major brand. BYU Professor Jeff Dotson also wanted to know, so he launched a study with Google and Drexel University to see if companies can use search volume to assess brand health in real time.

“It’s generally true that as searches spike, future sales will increase as well,” said Dotson, associate professor of marketing at BYU’s Marriott School. “But the relationship is a little bit more complicated than that.”

The study followed a panel of about 1,500 Google users who volunteered to take brand surveys about the smartphone and automobile industries, combining with their searches. Researchers then did a statistical analysis that combined their attitude toward a particular brand from the survey with their actual searching behavior over an 8-week period.

By comparing the two, the research team was able to tell if their actual perception of different brands was reflected in their online searches.

They found that the majority of branded search usually comes from one of three categories:

  1.  People who are in the market for a product. (Customers are more likely to search for a specific brand as their attitude toward the brand moves from awareness to intent to purchase.)
  2.  People who have questions about their product and need help troubleshooting.
  3.  People who have a continuing interest in the brand itself, but aren’t necessarily purchasing.

These findings have implications for how marketers can use branded search.

“You need to effectively contextualize the search,” Dotson said. “For example, if someone searches for “iPhone problems”, the word “problems” is going to give you an insight into the motivation for the search. You can also look at where they click next. Do they go to Apple Support or do to they go to the Apple Store?”

Marketers who can give context to branded searches will have highly accurate information on where their customers are in the purchase funnel. Do they recognize the brand’s name? Do they have a positive association with it? Are they currently in the market? Are they considering purchasing the product?

Dotson and Drexel marketing Professor Elea Feit spent over a year getting approval for the project because of Google’s concern for the privacy of its users. First, they developed a system for Google users to opt into the research.  Then, they worked to develop a system that would protect the users’ privacy while yielding the data they needed.

“Elea and I never touched the data, our co-authors from Google did all of the data-crunching,” Dotson said. “It was a very productive relationship.”