The end of traditional opinion polls?

In the run up to the UK general election Economists in Glasgow have claimed they will be able to predict the results of future elections by using Google search data after they accurately forecasted the vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum.

The methods used by the economists are complex and routinely used by financial markets to analyse Google Trends’ ‘big data’ to predict stock market and commodity price movements.

There are, of course, a number of differences between the referendum vote last year and the upcoming general election which make it hard to believe that Google search data will lead to an accurate prediction:

  • A referendum with only two possible outcomes is much easier to measure than a general election with multiple parties;
  • Voter registration numbers for the referendum were known in advance and could be factored into predictions. Such registration numbers will not be known for the upcoming general election and it is also true that those more likely to register will be the older generation, who are less likely to be online;
  • During the referendum there were two key individual figures, which dominated the search terms. In a general election there will be a number of individuals that will garner media attention, even aside from the different leaders of political parties; and
  • Although there were different agendas on the table during the referendum, the general election will throw up plenty more, across a wide array of locations throughout the UK.

There is also the obvious question of how the voting pattern of those not on the internet are measured (yes, there are still people not on the internet! Latest ONS figures show that 84 per cent of households have internet access). No doubt there are complicated algorithms to get around this but it is a question that still persists.

Enough questions remain that traditional polling organisations, such as Ipsos MORI  and YouGov, will still have more credibility when predicting the results of the upcoming election. However, in years to come, as economists study Google search data in more depth, as well as other online data from social media etc., there may come a time when Google search data can lead to accurate election predictions.