It’s the eve of the Scottish referendum on independence, one of the biggest political decisions most Scots will make in their lifetime. Most official polls put the Yes and No camps in a virtual dead heat with both sides polling around 50% with a few points either way depending on the day of the week. With the exceptions of a few swings, No is generally seen as being the most likely decision from these polls, usually sitting on the right side of 50%. Ultimately it looks likely that the undecideds, currently around 7% of votes, will be where the contest is won.
Predicting The Outcome From Search Behaviour?
The research by Dixon Jones of MajesticSEO is very compelling, although this perhaps only indicates how strong each side is campaigning – after all, strong campaigns earn links – and not necessarily how people will vote (although a strong campaign should also earn more support).
It was Marc Hindley’s article on search trends which prompted me to look into this data more myself to see what insights we can actually gain from it. One of the first things that needs to be corrected with his method is Regional Interest. When he looked at the trends for “Better Together” and “Yes Scotland”, he used UK wide data. Naturally, only Scots have an actual vote in the referendum so we should really look exclusively at Scottish Regional Interest. Ultimately, most of the interest in both campaigns does come from Scotland, as this chart shows, although there is some interest from England which may be skewing data slightly.
So lets looks instead at the trends exclusively in Scotland.
It’s a largely similar picture to the UK-wide data – there’s a clear bias towards people searching for “yes scotland” versus “better together”.
But does this really tell us anything about how people will vote on the 18th September? All we can really say for certainty with this information is that there’s more search interest for the official Yes campaign compared to the official No campaign. There could be a myriad reasons for this, many of which would have nothing to do with how these searchers actually plan to vote.
When analysing search terms, we have to understand their intent and also when the intent is ambiguous. When someone searches for “dvd repair shop Edinburgh” their intent is pretty clear. However, when someone searches for “dvd player” the intent is less obvious – do they want to buy a DVD player? Are they trying to find out what a DVD player is? Are they looking for the history of DVD players? Are they looking for an image of a DVD player? It’s impossible to tell and in all likelihood, the intent for “dvd player” queries will be split across several possibilities.
Finding Searches With Less Ambiguous Intent
This chart looks at the interest over time between the search phrases “vote yes” and “vote no”. These terms are perhaps less ambiguous and more indicative of voter intent than those simply searching for the official campaigns. At the very least, we can guess that people making these searches are probably looking for reasons to vote one way or another. Again, the Yes vote looks like it’s gained more traction here, at least with people interested in it.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that many people will be explicitly declaring their voting intentions via search. But one thing it does look like a lot of people are using search for is helping them decide which way to vote and this is where search is going to help decide the outcome of the referendum.
The SERP Battleground
So what of those undecideds looking for answers? Many of them will be swayed by the opinion of their family or peers or via social media, but clearly a lot of them are doing their own research online. Taking this as a likely intent of the above searches we can then move on to look at actual search results to see how voters may be influenced by the information delivered by Google for these queries.
Both of these queries are pretty text-book brand search results. Google is clearly recognising both of these as the official campaign names for both sides and displaying suitable results accordingly. Official page first, some news results, official social media accounts and so on. “Yes Scotland” looks slightly better – they’re getting image results and in-depth articles as well as unofficial pages supporting the Yes vote, giving searches more varied social proof in favour of a yes vote. “Better Together” has also made the unfortunate faux pas of choosing a name of a completely unrelated American initiative which shows up on the first page of results.
As these aren’t using the official campaign names, we can guess that these might be people more specifically looking for guidance on how to vote.
The official Yes Scotland campaign has good coverage for “vote yes”, with their main website homepage as well as an FAQ page summarising reasons to vote yes and their Facebook page showing up in the top results, along with a unofficial pro-yes campaign site. There are also a lot of news stories which vary in terms of being for or against a yes vote, so there’s some balance to the viewpoint here.
The Better Together campaign isn’t fairing so well for “vote no” searches. Only the homepage for their official site shows up, rather than a page explicitly promoting reasons to vote no. An unofficial No vote Facebook page shows up rather than the campaign’s Facebook account, limiting their control of their messaging.
Worryingly for the Better Together campaign, the top result for “vote no” is independentscotland.org which, whilst giving some reasons for a no vote, makes it pretty clear that they consider them poor reasons and that a Yes vote would be best for Scotland. The in-depth articles, for this query, meanwhile are out-of-date and unrelated to the referendum – people looking for answers are only going to find confusion in artiles about UKIP and the Supreme Court.
In general, it feels like the Better Together campaign lacks online cohesion and I can only guess that this will cost them votes, especially amongst the undecided and swing voters. If I was to make a prediction based on the relative performance of both sides in search results, my money would be on Yes Scotland being the stronger contender to win more of these crucial votes – more people are searching for information on Yes and Yes is delivering better information with a stronger online campaign than No.