More Detail on YouGov Research Methods
By David Eastbury, Director (International Research), YouGov
Internet surveys administered through panels have become a feature of the research landscape in the last decade and a half. YouGov pioneered the use of online research in the UK in 2000 and, particularly in its early adoption stages, has been pretty much a lone voice in advocating the use of the internet for social research. YouGov conducts its public opinion surveys online using something called Active Sampling for the overwhelming majority of its commercial work, including all nationally and regionally representative research. The emphasis is always on the quality of the sample, rather than the quantity of respondents.
When using Active Sampling, restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people contacted are allowed to participate. This means that all the respondents who complete YouGov surveys will have been selected by YouGov, from their panel of registered users, and only those who are selected from this panel are allowed to take part in the survey.
Over the last twenty years, YouGov has carefully recruited a panel of over two million British adults and over 15 million people worldwide, across more than 50 countries, to take part in their surveys. Panel members are recruited from a host of different sources, including via standard advertising, and strategic partnerships with a broad range of websites. These people cover a wide range of ages, gender, social grade, ethnicity and tenure. These panels are large enough to enable YouGov to select both nationally representative samples that reflect the actual breakdown of the population on the key demographics (such as age, gender, region etc.) and target specific samples (such as legal service users, cat owners etc.).
When a new panel member is recruited, a host of socio-demographic information is recorded. For nationally representative samples, YouGov draws a sub-sample of the panel that is representative of the population in terms of a number of different demographic variables (generally age, gender and region as a minimum), and invites this sub-sample to complete a survey. To reiterate, with Active Sampling only this sub-sample has access to the questionnaire via a secure login, and respondents can only ever answer each survey once.
Obtaining good-quality samples is a challenge for all methodologies. Response rates for telephone polls for example, have been declining in recent years – to typically below 10% – and often much lower in inner city areas. The ability to extrapolate from the under 10% of telephone respondents that pollsters can get hold of, to the 90% that they cannot, is clearly a challenge – leading to concerns over the quality of achieved samples, whether telephone or face-to-face. There are, of course, some areas where an online approach is unsuitable, and YouGov would always alert their clients to this. For example, it would be inappropriate for an online survey to be used to estimate the incidence of paying income tax online or for identifying service needs on a disadvantaged housing estate.
However, it would be unfair to say that online is ‘biased’ in a way that offline is not. The fact is, there are different biases for which all approaches have to account. Online research can be used for a wide variety of topics and given that in the Digital News Survey we are asking about usage of and attitudes towards digital news and screening out those who don’t access it, online is an appropriate methodology. Especially as the main purpose is to track the activities and changes over time within the digital space – as well as gaining understanding about how offline media and online media are used together.
Analysis of the Data
Once the survey is complete, the final data are then statistically weighted to the national profile of all adults aged 18+ (including people without internet access) or whatever the target sample has been defined as, in case of non-representative surveys. All reputable research agencies weight data as a fine-tuning measure and almost all surveys involve weighting, whether they are conducted online, face-to-face or by telephone. This is to ensure that the published results properly reflect the population they seek to measure. For example, men comprise 48% of the electorate and women 52%. The raw figures in a well-conducted survey will be close to this, but not necessarily match these numbers exactly. Suppose the raw figures contain 50% men and 50% women. YouGov’s computer would slightly “downweight” the replies given by the men (so that the replies of 500 men count as if they were 480) and slightly “upweight” the replies given by women (so that the replies of 500 women count as if they were 520).
In practice, the task is more complex than this, as other demographic variables, as well as gender, have to be considered simultaneously. This is a task for YouGov’s computer, which adjusts the raw data to take account of all these factors. At YouGov, the exact demographics vary by country (largely dependent on publicly available figures) – as an example, in the UK, YouGov weights by age, gender, social class and region, as well as level of education, how respondents voted at the previous election, how respondents voted at the EU referendum and their level of political interest on occasion. Targets for the weighted data are derived from a number of sources, including:
- The census
- Large scale random probability surveys, such as the Labour Force Survey, The National Readership survey and the British Election Study
- The results of recent elections.
- Official ONS population estimates
Active Sampling ensures that the right people are invited in the right proportions. In combination with YouGov’s statistical weighting, this ensures that the results are representative of the country as a whole. Not just those with internet access, but everyone. While it is true that not everyone does have access to the internet, independent academic research shows that its widespread uptake means the views of those with access to the internet are now mostly indistinguishable from those without.
Online Approach – Additional Considerations
Interviewer bias and social distance
Another key advantage of online for this survey is the neutrality of the interview mode. Independent research has found that respondents modify their answers in the presence of an interviewer, including when the interviewer is on the other end of the phone. This lack of ‘social distance’ can mean that respondents feel compelled to give a ‘safe’ answer.
Online surveys increase social distance so respondents are more likely to disclose important and sensitive information. In addition it enables a respondent to give an answer free from embarrassment and, therefore, a truer reflection of their actual feelings.
The influence of questionnaire design on measurement error has received attention in a number of publications. Chang and Krosnick (2010) conducted an experiment, randomly assigning respondents to complete a questionnaire either on a computer or to be interviewed orally by an interviewer. They found that respondents assigned to the computer condition manifested less non-differentiation and were less susceptible to response order effects. In other words the computer surveys were more likely to extract a truer response.
Pace of interview
Online research is more convenient for respondents; they can fill in the survey in their own time, at their own pace and can formulate more considered answers. The nature of the Digital News Report survey is fairly complex and requires a great deal of time and thought on the respondents’ behalf. Therefore an online approach is ideal for this study.
YouGov is a leading player in the UK’s media polling and is one of the most quoted research agencies. The only way to demonstrate the accuracy of attitudinal research is to compare predictions with actual outcomes. This is why YouGov have consistently published pre-election polls, even in difficult-to-call contests such as local government elections.
YouGov has a strong history of accurately predicting actual outcomes across a wide range of different subjects, including national and regional elections, political party leadership contests and even the results of ITV talent show The X Factor.
YouGov is also part of ESOMAR – full details of the YouGov answers to the ESOMAR 28 questions can be viewed here