The Dynamic Nutraceutical Landscape

By Michael Yatcilla, PhD | October 1, 2006

Market surveillance using google trends.

Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.
- John Naisbitt
Have you ever sat at a meeting and wondered whether the consumer would rather buy "omega 3" or "fish oil?" Does it matter if the consumer was in the USA or the UK? At what date did the low-carb fad officially end? What ingredient is "taking off" right now? Is sudoku a passing fad or a trend?

Some of these questions (okay, maybe not the last one) have enormous relevance to our dynamic marketplace. Knowing how to distinguish a "fad" from a "trend" is important, as is knowing in what direction the trend is going. In the past, to figure out what's "hot" and what's "cooling" you'd conduct some consumer research and get a rough answer. More likely you'd ask someone who claimed they knew the answer (and they'd charge you a fee). There are whole industries devoted to trend-spotting and trend-monitoring. However quantitative trend data is difficult to come by.

A new service offered for free by Google makes a strong step in offering quantitative trend data at your fingertips. It is by Google's definition still in "beta" testing phase, which means it may be buggy, incomplete or just plain inaccurate. But even in it's fledgling state, Google Trends is already a remarkably-useful resource for marketers and product development professionals in the nutraceutical industry.

First some background.

Likely the strongest candidate for "winner" in the chaotic competition that characterized the internet's first decade, Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) has emerged as the leading internet search engine (for now).

Scientists have always felt comfortable using Google's technology. When I was a young research scientist (which was in the dim days pre-Google) I was constantly confounded by the "noise" associated with any search for data. Humans, it seems, like to write. A lot. And as our ability to index and search these millennia of writings improves, so does the inevitable fact that our searches will turn up an awful lot of useless data. In fact, there is so much useless data that finding the useful nugget can be quite a trick.

Scientists have long known the trick. Basically you filter out obscurity and only focus on those published pieces of data that have been used by other people. You don't need to worry about the papers that are published and then never again referenced because all the "important" papers are cited by other researchers in subsequent work. In short, the frequency at which a piece of work is cited by subsequent researchers is often a very good measure of how "important" the work is.

When searching the internet the number of unimportant writings is excessively large and the number of important things is excessively small. Robert Wilensky once said, "We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true."

This is where search engines like Google come in. One of the ways that search engine quantifies search results by keeping track of how many times different web sites refer to another one, and by quantifying these 'citations' or 'referrals' gets a good idea of how important the original site is. In other words, Google works just like the fossilized old research scientist (like me) used to

This imbedded quantification allows Google to keep track of a number of other things, most notably (for this article), the number of times users of Google search for something. Great for Google, right? Yes, but it's great for you too.

First of all, over a billion people now use the internet, including about 70% of North Americans (http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm). Second, the number of people who use the internet as a primary source of information continues to grow, and third, Google is large enough (the number one ranked search engine in 11 major countries, including the US) and international enough to give a truly global cross-section of users and interests.

Hence, as the number of people searching the internet using Google increases, and the number of people who seek information on the internet increases, Google search volume becomes an increasingly useful means of quantifying trend data. Our industry is no exception.

Google Trends (www.google.com/trends) is an amazingly useful and powerful little tool that shows you exactly this data. Just go to the website and start searching. You'll quickly get the hang of it. Basically you type in your search, and see how the popularity of that thing has varied over time. A fun example is the string "New Years Resolutions"

FIRST CHART HERE new years resolution.

As expected, right around new years' day, people become interested in "New Years Resolutions" and start asking Google about it. This is predictable and as expected.

We knew what the answer was going to be when we searched for "New Years Resolutions" so the result was satisfying because it made sense. Let's earn similar confidence for trends in the nutraceutical industry.

First let's evaluate a "negative control". That is, a trend that we know historically decreased. What is something I know in our industry is on the downswing? How about the word "Atkins"?


So far, so good. People stopped searching the term "Atkins" appreciably in mid-2004, which corresponded to the end of the low-carb fad. Note the spike in the news in July 2005, which corresponded to the reports of Dr. Atkins death caused only a very small corresponding spike in the number of searches.

Now we need a "positive control", that is something we all know is on the rise. How about "goji"? I hadn't heard of this much until recently and now I see it everywhere.


Sure enough, Goji is emerging recently as something that people are searching for. It's still on the upswing, and a recent spike likely is related to some high-profile PR engagements. Great. Now that we are convinced that the tool can relate useful data, let's ask some interesting questions.

Question 1: Should I call my product "fish oil" or "omega 3"? Which is the consumer more likely to be looking for?

FOURTH CHART HEREfish oilomega 3

At first glance, the answer is unambiguously "omega 3". Nearly twice as many people search for "omega 3" as they do for "fish oil". However, recall that Google is used as a search engine throughout the entire world and Google Trends allows you to restrict your search to individual countries. Running the same search "fish oil, omega 3" but restricting the results to only those searches conducted within the United States reveals something different:

Question 2: Should I call my product "fish oil" or "omega 3" if I am going to market it in the United States?

FIFTH CHART HEREfish oilomega 3

Here the answer is much different. Historically "fish oil" has been more popular than "omega 3" although at present the two are roughly equal. Performing the same search on other countries can show different trends.

Another thing that is useful is to compare the relative interest levels of different nutraceutical ingredients. Let's try "glucosamine, chondroitin".

Question 3. When marketing my company's joint product, should I tout glucosamine or chondroitin?

SIXTH CHART HERE glucosaminechondroitin

"Glucosamine" is more popular than "chondroitin" by a wide margin. This chart shows us another interesting thing. Note that in early 2006 there is a large spike in the news volume about glucosamine and chondroitin. This corresponds to the broad media coverage of the NIH GAIT trial published earlier this year(N Engl J Med, 354, 795-808, 2006). Note however that this large spike in news volume did not result in a corresponding increase in searches for "glucosamine" or "chondroitin".

For an example of a media event that had a strong effect on a nutraceutical product, a clear example can be seen if you search the term "hoodia"


November 21, 2004 (the first 'spike' in search volume) corresponds to the first big hoodia story on 60 Minutes. Also, is there a trend developing on the far right of this graph? We'd better check back in a year or so.

Google Trends represents an intuitive, entertaining, and surprisingly useful way of using mountains of consumer search data to tease out trends in our very dynamic industry. Bring some Google Trends graphs to your next product development meeting. Is suduko a fad or a lasting trend? See for yourself.

About the author: Michael Yatcilla is the vice president of Research & Development for Natrol, Inc. He is embarrassed to note that a Trends search on "Yatcilla" does not have enough data to generate a Google Trends graph despite the number of times he has "Googled" himself. He can be reached at myatcilla@natrol.com.

Related Market Segments: