Matt, I agree and I think it is clear that the tool would be of much more value if hard numbers were provided. It doesn't.. but I think there are still some benefits. What we are talking about is some times referred to as 'directional statistics'. As vangogh said, it can be valuable if used in this way to provide a comparison. For example, over the years countless seos have relied on Wordtracker, Keyword Discovery & a mirage of other tools to research keywords. These tools do not provide you Google's search count either, but they do provide you a point of reference for comparison. How popular is it compared to other terms. If you want to research actual google search numbers then set up an adwords account and start tracking.
While I don't suspect that this tool is going to replace any of my keyword research tools, I think it is going to be consistently added to the mix of how I do my research. One factor I see it being used for (1) Verification of keyword popularity. There is a lot of false data when researching keywords and this helps confirm or deny that. (2) Viewing and comparing keyword trends over time. For example, check out 'prom'. I'm familiar with the term a bit, and some of the trends over time definitely were eye opening to me.
Understanding this one made me think a bit. Explain this -
Google VS Yahoo VS MSN
While I understand that people search 'google' 'msn' or 'yahoo' frequently as a navigation aid, I wouldn't have expected the popularity and trends to be what is displayed in the chart. I don't think the above chart means Yahoo is more popular than google and msn which are about equal... but i think it does mean that when people are searching Google they are more likely to search for yahoo than msn. Why so many search for google when on google perplexed me a bit. Part of the answer can be seen by noting the uptick when google shares soared referenced at the end of October 2004. But look at the end of 2004 and beginning of 2005. What happened January-February 2005 with google to explain the HUGE spike up? Google profit rises sevenfold - Feb 2 2005? I am sure other things are involved too. Is that spike all google stock based? To me - the trends are insightful even if not completely clear. Can you explain how you interpret the above graph? i'm curious how others interpret it.
When searching, I think it is also important to realize that these are not exact matches. You can see this by reviewing the search term 'rose'. Note that January 5th spike because of the "Rose Bowl". So the trend for 'rose' also includes keyword phrases that include 'rose bowl' and 'rose garden' and so forth.
This quote from the About page is a bit long, but worth the read if you are trying to understand some of the more technical sides of the search function.
You can compare up to five terms by separating each term with a comma. To compare trend info for "mittens" and "bathing suits," for example, you'd simply enter [ mittens, bathing suits ] and click on "Search Trends."
To see how many searches contained either of two terms, just separate those terms with a vertical bar: "|". For example, to determine how many searches contained the terms "mittens" or "gloves," you'd enter [ mittens | gloves ]. To compare multi-word terms, use parentheses. To see how many searches were done for either "winter mittens" or "gloves," for instance, enter [ (winter mittens) | gloves ]; otherwise, your query will be interpreted to mean all searches for "winter mittens" or "winter gloves."
You can also exclude terms from your search by using the minus sign. To see how many searches contained the term "maps" but not "google," for instance, just enter [ maps -google ].
To restrict your results to only those searches that contain your terms in the specific order you've entered them, put your terms in quotation marks. (By default, Google Trends will show you all searches that contain the terms you entered in any order.)
Note: when you use any of these advanced features -- quotation marks, minus signs, or vertical bars -- Google Trends will only display the search-volume graph. The news portion of the product doesn't support advanced functionality at this time.