Watch Your Words

As marketers, we’re always looking for the right words. From keywords for SEO and SEM to YouTube video tags to sell sheets and white papers, the impact of the right word can be decisive.  As Mark Twain put it – The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Finding the right word is seldom easy. Now the folks at Google Labs have released a potentially useful tool for this sometimes daunting task. This is Ngrams, Google’s free online word database and query tool. It’s purpose is not to help marketers, but that’s no reason not to try it.

Ngrams is derived from Google Books – Google’s effort to digitize and make available as many books as it can. In doing so, it has compiled a database of trillions of words. Ngrams gives you a simple way of comparing popularity of words in print and seeing how this changes with time.

There is both science and art underlying Ngrams. You can find a lengthy academic exposition of its methods and assumptions in the 12/17/10 issue of Science and a more accessible users guide at Culturomics.

The Ngram web page itself is simple and offers only a few options. This makes it particularly handy to try collections of phrases. If you really want a more exhaustive analysis, Google lets you download the data. You can then torture it to your hearts content.

Word choice can a proxy of how a market describes or thinks of something be it a concept,  a product category or your business.

Since the data are derived from published books there is a built in lag between the time of writing and appearance in Google Books. Thus Ngrams is no Twitter trending topics or anything approaching real time. This can be an advantage in that it is Ngrams is less likely to pick up momentary news or fads.

How might you use Ngrams? If you to sell chocolate, you might be interested that while the term “chocolate bar” has grown steadily over the past 20 years, it has been overtaken by “truffle.” You might test package or copy terms like “truffle bar” or “truffle chips.” With winter upon us perhaps a mug of truffle coco will lubricate the flow of our marketing copy.

Or suppose you’re Suppose alternatively, you’re introducing a new financial transaction service. The following chart seems relevant to whether you want to position it as a payment, check, or credit card.

Ngram lets you compare as many terms as you wish in search for le mote juste. It’s also rather entertaining. Enter some terms into Ngram and see what it suggests for your market.