If you're not using Google Trends, you need to start. It doesn't have to be right this minute (but you will get a cookie as a reward for following along). At the very least, do me a favor and schedule yourself 20 minutes later this week to check out what is probably the most underrated tool for businesses, especially start-ups. I'm not sure why Google Trends flies under the radar so often, but when I ask entrepreneurs whether they've done any research on the ol' GT, they respond, "Um...no. Should I?"

Look, I'm not going to lie: the GT home page is cleaner than a dentist's mouth. It can be a little intimidating. It doesn't clearly explain what it is (you actually have to use the Help section or frickin' GOOGLE IT to find helpful articles) and it doesn't orient you on the best way to start. You stare at it for a minute, and then you feel a little like this:

Google Trends feels like this.

But after one day of using Google Trends, I promise you'll be hooked. GT also offers some advantages that traditional keyword research tools (like Planner) don't: it leaves out repeated searches by a single user (so results aren't crazy skewed), it groups together searches that it thinks infer the same thing (example: misspellings like "kookie monster" are folded in to a "Cookie Monster Sesame Street" search) and it has a robust suggested list of related searches, which is badass.

Here's how to get started--complete with pictures!

PAUSE: Marketing 101 Tip... Always combine rich writing, optimized photos/graphics, numbers/infographs, etc. in your content strategy because the one constant across all businesses is this: customers respond to different media in different ways. Numbers, words, pictures...you can't predict which one your audience will prefer. So use them all and heatmap to see results over time. More on heat-mapping later, now back to our regular programming...)

Okay, so here's a screenshot from me fooling around in Google Trends. I decided to compare some Web search terms to decide whether one phrase works better than the other for my website so I can use some really high performing phrases (a.k.a. phrases that people are typing in often or that are coming up in recent headlines) in my advertising. I came up with 3 search phrases, plugged them in, and GT brought up the info.

Google Trends step 1

NOTE what I circled in red. You have a lot of filtering options in GT to narrow down by what people search for OR you can check headlines for news popularity or even check GT's forecast of how that search term will continue to rate in popularity. You can narrow down the dates. You can look at different TYPES of searches (a phrase may be more popular in YouTube than Images, for example). You can narrow results by the country you're interested in serving. Scroll down and analyze by region or city.

Booyah! Lots of info.

(Don't use the word Booyah! in business meetings. I made that mistake once.)

Use Google Trends to understand:

1. Your target market--start here.

GT helps you become a "mind reader" of your audience (especially after combined with different analytics tools). Discover what people are searching for in terms of what your industry has to offer. Use that to narrow down to a healthy mix of general search phrases AND niche phrases that identify smaller pools of hot leads (people eager to buy EXACTLY what you're offering). Also, start thinking about how you're going to replace content on your static pages that might include search phrases that have now grown stale. Toss that old bread, bake a new loaf. Let the fresh-bread smell bring new visitors to the bakery. Know what I'm sayin'?

Do not become a complete slave to hot trending phrases. Leave the Miley Cyrus-es of your keyword arsenal for your blog or social media or monthly advertising--something you will change out regularly, but will still capture the attention of the moment.

2. Your competitors--this is the second step.

Whether they're your friends or your arch-nemeses, get the scoop on how your competitors are performing. For example: say you're Chips Ahoy. Yes, you and Oreo are both owned by Nabisco, but let's face it: you're still competing for cookie market share. Let's take a look and see which one is trending more in searches:

Google Trends step 2

See that blue line? Yeah, that's Oreo. (By the way, you can hover over the capital letters to see what news headlines contributed to the spike in popularity during that time. I only used the search for one year so it doesn't cover some awesome historic moves on Oreo's part--like their famous Tweet during the Super Bowl blackout.) And the flat-liner is Chips Ahoy. So, Chips Ahoy recently rolled out a cookie "stuffed" with Oreo--a great way to boost visibility by joining forces with the other brand (like the mathlete who gets to go to prom with the cheerleader). But the visuals here can help you understand at a glance how long a brand's popularity lasts after a news item, and you can view related queries to figure out what people were searching for and then digging to find out why.

This keeps your finger on the pulse of a competitor's performance without having to sort through a ton of newsfeeds (News Alerts, albeit wonky from time to time, are still valuable for PR management so you can set those up, too). You can also do searches for related product names, ideas and concepts, etc. Pretty useful.

3. Your ideas for relevant content--you gotta do this on the regular.

Say you notice in Google Trends that the term "Cookie Monster" has spiked...you find out that Cookie Monster is turning from blue to green for a new spinoff series and people are going ballistic over this. You happen to own a retail clothing line. So you decide to harness the search energy of the moment and scribble off a quick blog post about why the color green is so hot for summer dresses and why Cookie Monster is now leading a fashion trend. Or something.

This blog post accomplishes 3 things: 1) It fills your site with more unique content, which search engines love. 2) It ties in with a popular search right now that will hopefully drive some brand new traffic to your site. 3) It further establishes your authority as a trend watcher and trendsetter--sense of humor helps--which will anchor your new and existing visitors. Be sure to drive your new visitors to your selection of green dresses on your retail website, and Booyah!--a chance of increased conversions and $$$.

"So, what now?" you ask.

The advice I can give you is to sit down and spend some time with GT. Get to know what people are searching for over a period of time like a year, and what they're searching for NOW. Set up your subscriptions, and look at GT once a week--let's say Monday morning while you drink your coffee. Hell, while you're at it, look at analytics in general. Just tune in to see how everything's shaking. Take note of these trends and use them to gain traffic THAT WEEK. It's as easy as writing one quick optimized andrelevant blog post and pushing it out to your audience to get some views and click-throughs.

Try it and drop me a line to let me know how Google Trends works for you.

Now here's your cookie:

You get a cookie cup for researching Google Trends.