September 27, 2010 / 11:27 PM / 7 years ago

Will your new film be a hit? Ask the web

<p>A generic picture of a woman in an office using a computer mouse. OFFPOCatherine Benson</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tracking web searches for new songs, video games and movies can predict which ones will be big hits, but often not much better than traditional methods, researchers at Yahoo Inc reported on Monday.

And they confirmed earlier findings that showed searches associated with diseases, such as Google's Google Flu Trends, were not any more effective than traditional methods for predicting the spread of infections.

Tracking web searches worked the best in predicting how a new video game would sell, Yahoo's Sharad Goel and Jake Hofman said.

"Here we show that what consumers are searching for online can also predict their collective future behavior days or even weeks in advance," they wrote in a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Specifically we use search query volume to forecast the opening weekend box-office revenue for feature films, first-month sales of video games, and the rank of songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, finding in all cases that search counts are highly predictive of future outcomes," they added.

"We considered four different classes of web activity. At least three of them we do a pretty good job of predicting outcomes," Goel said in a telephone interview.

Counting the number of searches related to new songs was the least effective, they found.

But Goel said using Billboard Top 100 listings to predict whether a song would stay at the top of the charts worked as well as or better than counting web searches.

Critics' ratings for movies also worked just about as well for predicting box office performance as web searches, he said.

"Given the attention that search-based predictions have received recently, it may seem surprising that search data are, at least in some cases, no more informative than traditional data sources," they wrote.

To check their findings, they took another look at flu data. Google offers a free product for trying to predict the movement of influenza by tracking web searches for words such as "flu", "fever" and "Tamiflu".

The Yahoo team found the search engine method only worked a little better than simply tracking hospital and health department reports of flu activity.

Other researchers have shown that counts of search terms in 2001-2003 correlated with U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment figures and that searches for cancer-related terms matched how common those types of cancers were.

Hofman and Goel said they could not comment on whether Yahoo was developing a search engine product for predicting sales.

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