Commentary

How Search Data More Closely Predicted How Seats On U.K. Political Parties Would Change

Search engines Google and Bing have been known to forecast trends, and the outcome of sporting events, even presidential elections, but recently a U.K.-headquartered search agency took on the challenge. Mavens of London tapped into the latest search data using Google AdWords to update its research on the changing patterns in the U.K.'s political parties. Prior to the vote, Mavens aimed to predict an accurate number of seats won by each party in the latest election.

Predictions or forecasts aren't perfect. The company built a model combining traditional polling data since 2012 as a baseline, and then adjusted the expected outcome for each constituency based on the candidate's share of search in the area. The model also used data from January, February and March 2015. Tom Mowat, director at Mavens of London, admits the company's researchers had to manually correct the data for nationally famous parliamentarians and those with famous names. In the 2015 U.K. election at least six major parties competed for 650 constituencies. 

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The number of political parties in the U.K., compared with the United States, makes it more interesting to analyze. The idea aimed at analyzing a much more complex electoral system would prove challenging. "We had to set a limit for how much search could influence the outcome," Mowat said. "In some areas, candidates really dominate search in a way that we didn't think reasonable to forecast an election outcome. This limit was in the form of a parameter, which was the maximum swing that dominance of search in an area could produce."

When all said and done, Maven's researchers did make the parameter too small. The final forecast was around 290 seats for Conservatives party. "By adjusting this parameter up, we got 303, with 263 for Labor, nine for Lib Dems, and 49 for the SNP," he said. "Some of these are marginal candidates, with 50 o 60 searches per candidate."

Nigel Hollis, EVP and chief global analyst at Millward Brown, believes the U.K. polling industry failed to predict the outcome of the U.K. election, providing yet another reason to doubt the validity of survey research. Perhaps more companies need to turn to search data for more accurate forecasting and predictions.

Mavens of London predictions were not perfect, but closer to the truth than other polls. It wasn't so much about predicting the political seats, but to demonstrate the ability to create better campaigns that more accurately target advertisements. 

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