How to Get Quality Market Research Without Spending Any Money

August 6, 2016, 4:00 PM UTC

Years ago, when you talked about doing market research, the image of pointy-headed academics conducting highly scientific surveys and crunching number in ways inconceivable to the common man or woman came to mind.

But today, with so much data being collected automatically by the Internet search engines, virtually anyone can take the pulse of the consumer and get a good idea whether a business idea has any chance at success. . . or not. The key is to know how to use Google (GOOG) to uncover vital information to make sound marketing decisions.

There are a variety of commercial scenarios in which you may want to do this. You might have an idea for a new product or service, or you might be considering branching out into a related product area. Or maybe you want to fine tune how you inventory and price items throughout the year. Let’s take an example to illustrate these ideas.

The Initial Picture

The first step is to get a snapshot of consumer interest of your product or service over time. Google Trends will usually give you this information. If you’re researching an item whose keywords have virtually no search history, you’re out of luck; however, that won’t happen very often.

For more on Marketing, watch this Fortune video:

For our example, I searched for “waterproof running shoes.” Once you get your first search results, you’ll see that you have options to filter the results. I can filter the results by category such as “shopping,” which seems like a good idea if I’m planning to sell waterproof running shoes.

My initial results are “worldwide,” but if I was planning a waterproof running shoe store in Afghanistan–or the U.S.–I could limit my results to those nations. We’ll get some more geographically targeted data in a moment, so hold on.

As I look at the trend for waterproof running shoes, it’s apparent that searches are increasing quite nicely year-to-year. That’s certainly encouraging! And, although I can’t really get a feel for the months that have the most searches, I see that there is a “sawtooth” pattern to the line graph, so obviously interest in waterproof running shoes has a high season and a low season.

Refining the Picture

The next step is to take essentially the same search and do it within the Google AdWords environment, using the Keyword Planning Tool. You need an AdWords account to gain access to this tool. Within AdWords, you’ll be able to

  • Get a monthly breakdown of searches.
  • Focus in on smaller geographic areas.
  • Determine market competitiveness.
  • Discover related keywords which might help your business development.

When I moved my waterproof running shoes search to AdWords, I limited the geographic area to California. I ended up with some very good information that would be helpful if I was planning a new business or trying to optimize an existing business.

First, the months when interest in waterproof running shoes is high becomes quite obvious. That could help a store owner plan inventory buys as well as clearance sales. And if I was thinking about selling waterproof running shoes, I like the fact that Google is warning me that competition is high for keywords related to this product. That might save me a lot of heartache, or at least let me know that I would have to invest some serious change to advertise my waterproof running shoes on the Internet.

Finding More Opportunities

I drilled down to get all the various keywords that Google includes under the general keyword of “waterproof running shoes.” Some related keywords suggest other products I might sell, and maybe there would be less competition in these areas.

People who search for waterproof running shoes are also interested in waterproof gaiters, lightweight waterproof running shoes, waterproof running boots (?), waterproof spray for running shoes, and waterproof running tops.

If, for example, I sold waterproof running shoes online, I might present offers on some of these items to everyone who drops a pair of waterproof running shoes into their shopping carts. Further, I might follow up a sale with an email that announces a 24-hour sale on waterproof running tops.

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This isn’t the only kind of market research you may want to do, but it’s certainly a good starting point. How much did I spend to conduct this research? Zilch, and frankly, it didn’t take me more than about a half hour.

Corporate market research wonks: Eat your hearts out.