One of the most exciting parts about being an intern at Firespring is seeing the real-world applications of my classroom education on real projects. This semester, one class in particular has turned my attention to big data, digital insights and analytics.

Sure, I’ve heard the term “big data” thrown around before, and I know companies like Google and Facebook collect user data. But I had a hard time understanding how small- and medium-sized businesses with limited resources could tap into it. An assigned reading by my professor, Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, opened my eyes and removed the mystery surrounding big data. Here’s how you can harness its power like the big boys.

Using data to understand your customers and audience

You know that your digital properties like Facebook, Twitter and your website will tell you basic user information like the number of visitors and time spent on the page. But to truly gain some understanding of your customers and audience, read between the lines and look at the bigger picture created when looking at the data all together. Are your website visitors new or returning users? Mobile, tablet or desktop? Engaged on multiple pages or do they leave after one click?

Often, the most telling piece of information you’ll find are the search terms a user typed into a search engine to find your page. Using these terms, you can plug them into Google’s Keyword Planner to find similar searches and even learn a search term’s monthly volume across a given area. For example, entering “Huskers” into the Keyword Planner returned a list of nearly 700 similar search terms all about the Huskers. While it’s all fun and games to look at historical data and trends, how can we use this data to try and predict what to do next?

Using data to identify patterns and trends

Keeping with the Huskers theme, I wanted to know what conversations were happening about Big Red in real time. I started by using Google Trends, a free resource that allows you to look at search trends across the world in real time.

Searches for “Nebraska Cornhuskers Football,” USA, 9/10/17–10/7/17

I entered “Nebraska Cornhuskers football,” set my location as the U.S. and looked back 30 days. Related searches like “Nebraska football” and “Nebraska schedule” were pretty obvious, but the real gems where found in search terms just beginning to trend, like Scott Frost.

Rising related searches for “Nebraska Cornhuskers Football,” USA, 9/10/17–10/7/17

Keeping the same parameters, I searched “Scott Frost.” Lo and behold, Nebraskans were typing Frost’s name into Google at a rate so high that not even the state of Florida, where he coaches, had higher interest.

What’s more, when expanding the data for Nebraska, search interest for the UCF coach spike four distinct times: September 16 and 23, and October 1 and 8—all the day of or the day after a Nebraska football game.

Seraches for “Scott Frost,” Nebraska, 9/10/17–10/7/17

To keep things fair, I entered “Mike Riley” and kept the location set to Nebraska with a 30 day range. Riley had four distinct spikes in search interest as well, but that’s not what caught my eye. Out of the topics people searched in conjunction with Mike Riley’s name—“coach,” “salary,” “contract” and “fire”—the only one he shared with Frost was “coach.”

Now, I’m not saying this means Nebraska will fire Mike Riley and hire Scott Frost. This data simply offers us a clearer idea of what people across Nebraska are thinking and searching about the two coaches.

The same technique can be used to identify trends in a business like landscaping. Interest in landscaping peaks around mid-April, so I set Google Trends to look for related searches the month before and during April. The top related searches all surrounded landscaping ideas, companies and designs. I would hazard a guess that spring fever has caused a lot of yearning for summer and people are beginning to think about spending more time outdoors. Once you change the time period from spring to summer, the related searches began to shift to types of plants and materials used rather than ideas or designs as well as outdoor patio furniture and outdoor activities.

If your head is spinning with numbers, don’t worry. “A special sauce is often necessary to help Big Data work best,” according to Stephens-Davidowitz. At Firespring, I’ve been fortunate to learn the recipe to our secret sauce and how it can impact small and medium business marketing. Want to learn more about what goes into our secret? All you have to do is ask.