Google Makes a Bad Economist

I love Google.  But it’s not a very good economist.  Type “unemployment rate,” and here’s what it yields:

 

The first of these links is from Google, and it tells you that the unemployment rate is 8.7%.  The second is to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tells you that it is 9.1%.

Technically, both are correct. But you are better off not relying on the Google number. You see, most economic discourse is about seasonally adjusted data—the unemployment rate adjusted to take account of the usual seasonal ups and downs. But Google links instead to the non-seasonally adjusted data, which virtually no one pays attention to. And this is why its little graph wiggles up and down so much.

The second link is more useful, taking you to the Bureau of Labor Statistics page where they describe trends in the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate. And the third link is beautiful: It takes you to the BLS page where they plot the latest data, but without the seasonal wiggles.

Yes, Google does offer a disclaimer with its data. But a better answer would be to link to the seasonally adjusted data.

Indeed, that’s exactly what you get when you search for, say, the “unemployment rate in France.”

Hopefully some of my Google friends can fix the U.S. data before some poor Congressional intern is fired for putting the wrong number in a speech.

 

Disclosure: Given that I’m writing about labor issues, the usual disclosure applies.

 

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 13

View All Comments »
  1. DaveyNC says:

    I think you need to work on your search skills: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=seasonally+adjusted+unemployment+rate&l=1

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4
  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    DaveyNC knocked it out of the park.

    Google is God….

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2
  3. Tom says:

    Even better would be if they linked to real unemployment data, instead of the government calculation which conveniently doesn’t include people based on arbitrary criteria.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3
  4. Ian says:

    In Google’s defence it says, even in the snippet at the top of the results, what the data is.

    Google can’t be expected to guarentee providing the most appropriate figure to anyone who searches. “Appropriate” is relevent to the task in hand; in some cases one values may be best, in others a different value. In more complicated issues, the “best” choice maybe in dispute between professionals.

    If you’re only putting in a basic search it’s really got nothing much to go on.. it probably does what Google always does, uses the most linked or visited source.

    If a Congressional intern responsible for collating information is just picking the first thing that comes up on Google, then perhaps they aren’t doing their whole job..

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  5. Shane says:

    It may seem obvious to those educated in economics to search specifically for “seasonally adjusted unemployment”, but not everyone has that economics/statistics background. For those of us who don’t, I think it’s a worthwhile point for Justin Wolfers to make.

    Part of what I enjoy about Freakonomics is that it makes ideas about economics and statistics accessible to people who don’t have those backgrounds. Pointing out little stuff like this can be useful. Well done!

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
    • James says:

      For a given value of right. In my case, it redraws the screen several times, showing some frames & blurbs but no actual information, then my browser segfaults.

      I think I’ll wait for Wolfram Beta :-)

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Marcus Kalka says:

    If most professional US economists are relying on Google for their financial information & data, then I would say that perhaps Google is in good company in being a bad economist.

    From my experience financial data from Google is to give a general idea for the curious layperson and in that sense Google serves a somewhat functional purpose.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Neil (SM) says:

      Which is all the more reason it should show the correct graph. An economist would know what statistic makes more sense, the curious layperson would not.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
      • James says:

        But that’s not how Google works. There’s no “sense” involved at all, and no checking for correctness. It’s basically just doing complex word searches, so if you search for “seasonally adjusted unemployment”, somewhere down it the millions of hits it finds will be someone’s blog post about how they have more time for cooking and visiting the chiropractor now that they’re not working.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • Neil (SM) says:

        But the article is specifically referring to the first item shown, along with the graph. That seems to be presented as an answer, much like what you get at the top when you type “square root of two” in the search bar.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0