Watch Words

Watching what people do is a powerful technique. Watch long enough and you may start to see some patterns emerge that are of significance. Google has provided us with a great tool to study what search terms people use. If you go to you can type in any combination of words and get a display showing how frequently those words showed up in search terms since 2004. It’s great for looking at how interests and fashions have evolved. For instance you can clearly see the rise of “Hannah Montana” as a Disney star. From nothing in 2005 to her peak in 2009, staying at home instead of going on holiday, suddenly gets searches in early 2008 a symptom of the economic times.

You can also see the decline of certain products and technologies. Since 2004, the search frequency for the term  “VHS” has dropped by half. VHS video tape is history (as everyone knows). A similar effect occurred for the term “e-commerce”, which has also dropped by half in frequency, although e-commerce itself has probably grown leaps and bounds in that time. “Fountain pen” is another term, slowly declining over the years. “Word processing” took a similar dive in frequency from 2004 to 2009. What does this have to do with market research ? The term “market research” shows a drop in frequency similar to the search terms “fountain pen”, “e-commerce”, “VHS” and “word processing” from 2004 to 2009.

Words have meaning, and in this case we can see that the words “market research” aren’t “top of mind” anymore. Is it the case that, like “VHS,” the term “market research” denotes an old, defunct technology or process ? Or, are we just watching linguistic evolution ? New words and terms overlay the old with subtle changes in meaning. We still have “Wword processing” is still taking place;, we still type words on computers. We just don’t delineate it as a specific task or function anymore. On the other hand, VHS tapes have gone the way of the Dodo. “Fountain pens” are falling out of use; anyone under 25 doesn’t seem to know how they work. “E-commerce” abounds, we just don’t call it that anymore. Could it be that the term “market research” is just a victim of ubiquity ? It’s everywhere and so delineating it seems pointless, as with “e-commerce.” The search term “web survey” has dropped in frequency significantly since 2004, but the actual practice of it certainly hasn’t.

The search term “customer” shows an interesting trend. It is relatively static until the start of 2008 and thereafter there is a steady increase to nearly double the pre-2008 levels. Customers have suddenly become much more important as the recession bites.  Pretty obvious, really !

What is clear is that the world isn’t thinking of the term “market research” as much as it did. The whole debate about “new MR” could be as relevant as talking about “new word processing.” Market research just isn’t a term that has much meaning anymore. However, there is a lot of thought about consumers and that is what MR is about. Perhaps it is time to let go of the term “market research” and let it slip into history. It doesn’t mean that working out what customers want isn’t important; it certainly doesn’t mean that MR companies should stop doing what they do. Customer research now has lots of different terms and “market research” isn’t meaningful as a way to describe what is going on. If only to get better results from searches made by prospects on Google, dropping the “market research” name would seem a good idea.

So is anyone interested in the “new VHS?”

About Andrew Jeavons

With over 25 years in the market research industry, Andrew is a frequent writer and speaker for various publications and events around the world. He has a background in psychology, statistics and software development. Andrew is President of Survey Analytics.


  1. Dear Andrew,

    How are you?
    What’s become of you?
    Where do you live, what do you do, and all these things?
    You’re not back on the Clapham Omnibus, are you? (athough, “if something was worng, we would certainly have known”)
    In any case, I wish you a creative and successful year.
    Let me know what’s up, when you can

    Philippe / [email protected]

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