Reading the Google Tea Leaves: How are Printers Faring?
It has been a number of weeks now since the seemingly ever-upward march of the price of a barrel of oil, with the resultant high gasoline prices, had finally peaked. And then, just a few weeks after that, a headline surfaced that in response to somewhat cheaper gas, the sales of gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) were already rebounding. Wow, I thought, that did not take long! Well, the real story was that yes, there was an indication of increasing interest among American car buyers in SUVs, but it was based on measurement of activity on Edmunds.com, one of the leading consumer-research sites in the auto business. (My italics for emphasis.) In other words, the tracking of Web surfers clicking through various truck and car information pages was making national business news. The article is a fascinating look at how, in this e-commerce-oriented age, marketers can read all sorts of interesting clues about buyer behavior well before the actual transactional results show up in the marketplace.
This fascinating discovery inspired me to go back to some research on a similar (if more crude) printer-related idea, research I had started earlier this year. That thinking had been triggered by several studies, including favorable comparisons between the accuracy of Web search metrics versus traditional political polling during the U.S. primary election season and valuation modeling of social network companies, also using search data.
My idea is to simply look at Google Trends data to gain insight into the relative popularity of various printer industry brand names, compared to each other and over time. And while Web-search-savvy readers, including a few close friends, will not be stunned by my approach, I think it sheds some interesting light on trends in the industry. Its appeal is also due to the fact that it’s done “on the cheap,” which the best marketing research often is, in my opinion.
Google Trends does a great job of tracking search terms, but of course the search terms themselves have to have certain qualities, like uniqueness. Just as doing a Google Search for “John Smith” will probably not have satisfactory results compared to a search on a more distinctive name, something like “Printer” or “HP” will not confine things enough to be very meaningful either.
So let’s start with some favorite long-time model brand names, the HP family of printers and MFPs. When entering “laserjet, officejet, deskjet, designjet” into the Google Trends search field, the resulting page appears as shown in the image at left. The default is set for worldwide searches, and a section of the report page not illustrated provides geographic and language ranking details. There is also a “News reference volume” graph that I cannot quite fathom, so I have excluded it from the figures as well. What the main chart, “Search Volume index,” shows, is the color-coded relative index of each of the entered terms. In this case, LaserJet is the leading (top) term throughout the time horizon.
It is surprising, however, that the trends are not in the "right" direction. I’ll let the professional researchers determine what this trend means and how it might be reflected in the market, but a test on a few more brands might shed some further insight, just to see if everything looks to be going down or if it’s just these venerable HP brands.
My next analysis focused on the well-documented printer industry “stars” of 2007: Edgeline, Memjet, Silverbrook, and Zink. The graph above illustrates a lurking problem, in this case that Zink is actually a common enough surname so that it washes out the other results. A data noise warning is that all the terms are represented in Google search universe by other usages—Memjet and Edgeline are used commercially in other relatively obscure products, and Silverbrook is an unusual (much more unusual than Zink, it turns out) but not unheard-of surname. Removing Zink in the chart below gets the other brands back on a visible scale. While these results are even more inconclusive than the HP graph, the interest spike of spring 2007 and resultant searches is certainly apparent.
I will close with one more example to further whet the appetite of would-be Google Trends addicts. Because it looks like search interest may be declining in some of our most traditionally popular printer brands, and even our upstart brands spiked in interest but then mostly held their own since 2007 announcements, how about comparing to something that is really on fire? I have written about Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle quite often (mostly about their lack of printing abilities), so how will they fare in the Google Trends analysis? (See above.) The graph below, removing the super-hot iPhone, shows an interesting pattern when putting LaserJet and Kindle together, with the huge November 2007 spike for Kindle, and a pretty steady relationship between the two since.
It is fun to learn more about search data, but can we derive any real meaning? Like it or not, the news is not good for those HP brands—not to pick on them, but they are the easiest to analyze because they are the most popular brands with the longest history. This data might be trivial or even meaningless, but all things considered, which direction would you want your brands heading?
Note -- In an exception to my typical practice, this online version of "Observations" includes some minor changes and additions, relative to the print version appearing in the September 2008 The Hard Copy Observer. Graphics and some supporting comments have been included that were omitted due to space considerations in the Observer.