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Google examines gaming search trends, statistical model says ad clicks can predict sales numbers

hard data on games, players, and publishers

Google "Understanding the Modern Gamer" whitepaper
Google "Understanding the Modern Gamer" whitepaper
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

A new study from Google analyzed two years' worth of gaming-related searches to come up with some facts, figures, and interesting insights into fans' desire for information on their favorite games.

The report, "Understanding the Modern Gamer," considered "hundreds of millions of video game searches" performed on desktops and mobile devices for the 20 highest selling games of 2010 and 2011. According to the study's findings, the search interest for a typical triple-A title follows a rough bell curve (see image above) that starts during the announcement month, peaks during the month of release — with a 540 percent increase in searches over the initial month — and falls off after launch.

Google's study also found patterns in the type of information gamers sought over the course of that pre-launch/release/post-launch bell curve. The top five search categories on desktop computers during the six months preceding a game's launch were, in descending order, "release date," "trailer," "image," "review," and "demo." The study's authors concluded that in the pre-launch period, "Gamers are most interested in researching official publisher-released content to help them decide which titles to buy." About 70 percent of pre-release searches looked for publisher-provided content, according to the report.

Searches shifted notably in the launch month to deciding whether to buy a game ("review" was the #2 category) and getting ahead once a game was purchased ("tips," which encompasses walkthroughs and other helpful information, was the top category). The study also found that players tended to use mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets as second screens during gameplay, looking up tips while playing — 27 percent of hint searches came on mobile platforms.

players tended to use mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets as second screens during gameplay, looking up tips while playing

Downloadable content was already on gamers' radar during the launch month, coming in at #5, and it shot up to #2 during the four-month post-release period. "During post-launch, those who have already purchased encounter another decision requiring research — whether to extend their experience by buying downloadable content (DLC)," said the whitepaper. The authors concluded, "Retailers can maximize game sales, from pre-orders to DLC, by delivering key content to gamers at the right moments across multiple devices."

The report also revealed a desire for persistent engagement when it came to major franchise titles. Search volume grew significantly with each successive annual entry in a series, a finding that indicates that "gamers who play franchise titles become active members of growing communities that are interested in year-round interaction with franchise content," according to the study.

Perhaps more notable is the second part of the study, which tallied and examined Google AdWords clicks on "brand keywords" and then compared them with the 25 top-selling core games for 2011, as counted by the NPD Group. The report's authors wanted to see if clicks could serve as a reasonable predictor of sales, and according to their findings, that is indeed the case.

The data evinced a correlation of 0.92 (with 1 being "perfect correlation") between the total number of advertising clicks during the 10-month pre-launch/launch/post-launch cycle and the unit sales during the first four months of release. The authors' statistical model indicated that 84 percent of those sales could be predicted by the number of clicks — for example, if a game saw 250,000 clicks during the 10-month cycle, it would likely sell between 2 and 4 million copies in four months. (The study acknowledged that a more accurate model would have to incorporate additional variables such as the quality of the game in question and the level of buzz on social media sites.)

Google's whitepaper concluded, "There is a quantifiable link between what people search for and what they buy that enables us to predict game sales."

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