What Do Consumers Want? What's Ahead? Google Knows

Attention, credit unions near Apex, N.C. Consumers there lead the nation in going online and searching the topic "auto loans." But beware: that same town, by a long shot, also leads the country in searching the topic "credit card debt."

Do you know what consumers in your area are searching for more information on? Do you want a heads-up on what trouble might lie ahead? You can find out. Among the many nifty services offered by Google is not just the ability to search topics; you can also find out in which cities that topic has been searched most often, along with trend lines over the past two years on volume of searches on that topic.

Take "credit unions," for instance. The top 10 cities where consumers are searching that topic are Winnipeg, Canada; Salt Lake City; Madison, Wis.; Dublin, Ireland; Halifax, Canada; Jacksonville, Fla.; Southfield, Mich.; Detroit; Las Vegas and Honolulu. As I suspect is the case, Winnipeg leads the way in "credit union" searches because there has been a high-profile merger there among three credit unions along with related litigation. Just members of that trio alone searching for more information would likely be enough to push them to the top of the list. Similarly, two Michigan cities, Southfield and Detroit, also make the list, likely due to the attention surrounding the conversion attempt-since abandoned-by DFCU Financial Credit Union. (Of course, I can't imagine why Madison, Wis. makes this list.)

On the flip side, who's searching for banks? The top cities are Mumbai, India; Raleigh, N.C.; Chennai, India; Washington; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Chicago; New York; Houston and Denver. (Interestingly, there's no overlap between the CU and bank searches.)

One interesting finding from the search of searchers is that many of the same cities appear, nearly all in the Sunbelt or southern U.S. Take auto loans, for instance. After the aforementioned, Apex, N.C., which again leads this list by a long shot, other cities where folks are searching "auto loans" are Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Richardson, Texas; Orlando; Miami; Denver and Tampa.

Search volume for auto loans had dropped at year-end 2005, but, paradoxically with rates themselves, has steadily risen this year. When it comes to "mortgage rates," Googlers in Denver have led the way in searching that topic, followed by Phoenix, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Raleigh and Chicago. Unlike auto loans, search volume on "mortgage rates" has followed those rates south since peaking in the first quarter of 2004 and dropping like your local Realtors' W-2 during 2006.

What about "checking accounts?" Atlantans have searched that topic most often, followed by Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Dallas, Richardson, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Orlando; Houston; Raleigh and Pleasanton, Calif. Worth noting: the highest volume of inquiries on "checking accounts" has come during the past quarter.

Who's worried about overdrawing those checking accounts? As noted above, folks in Apex, N.C., have dominated Google's searches for "credit card debt," ahead of the much larger markets that followed (beware Texas!), including Dallas, St. Louis, Richardson, Texas; Oklahoma City; Miami; Austin; Pittsburgh; Atlanta and Houston.

If you phrase that search slightly differently ("debt relief"), you'll find the most searches were conducted in Pittsburgh, Tampa, San Diego, Washington, Denver, Austin, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta. (I'd be interested in hearing from North Carolina's CUs on why Apex, a city that saw a surge in population growth during the 1990s, pops up so strongly on some of these searches.)

After being relatively flat during 2004 and even declining at year-end, the number of people searching "debt relief" spiked noticeably at mid-year 2005 (perhaps due to pending bankruptcy reform) before declining sharply and returning to 2004 levels during the first half of 2006. But the number of folks searching for information on debt relief, perhaps on a PC financed on an already stretched credit card, has been rising steadily again during the past two quarters.

On the other side of the wallet, the cities that have Googled "certificate of deposit" most often are Washington, Orlando, Portland, Ore.; Dallas; Baltimore; Houston; Richardson, Texas; New York; Chicago and St. Louis (Richardson, Texas makes the list for both CDs and "credit card debt.") If you're a credit union in one of these cities, you might want to adjust your marketing plans.

Finally, some of you may take some solace in another finding: when asked to compile a list of top cities searching "credit union taxation," Google reported there were insufficient searches to create such a list.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.