What Google Trends really tells us about KM popularity

Again yesterday I was corresponding with someone who used Google Trends as an argument that KM was dying.

Taken at face value this view is understandable. The google trends plot for KM decreases over time as shown below, showing a steady reduction in relative searches for the term “knowledge management” over the past 8 years.  At first sight this could suggest that the popularity of KM is on the wane, and that fewer and fewer people are searching for the term. However if you dig a little deeper this plot is misleading, and the conclusion that interest in KM is dying is actually a fallacy.

Let me explain why.

Google trends is not an absolute indicator of the popularity of a topic.

That is because Google trends measures “how often a term is searched for relative to the total number of searches, globally”, and the total number of searches, everywhere in the world, has rocketed (screengrab from this site below).

Any decrease in the relative percentage, as in the first graph, has to be normalised against the increase in the total number of searches in the second graph.  If the top graph is a measure of the percentage and the bottom graph is the total, then all we need to do is multiply them together to get a measure of the total number of KM searches, and then we will be able to say something meaningful.

That is exactly what I have done in the plot below. The numbers are inexact, as I have just read points visually from the first plot (see table at the base of the post for figures) but the conclusion is obvious.

Conclusion 
Google trends is a meaningless indicator unless normalised against the total number of searches. If you do this, then far from KM being in a decline …

… the total number of Google searches for Knowledge Management has actually increased steadily from 2004 to 2012.  

Raw data for the 3rd graph
year total searches (billion) Googletrends measure of KM share measure of total number of searches for KM
2004 86 100 8600
2005 141 70 9870
2006 230 50 11500
2007 372 40 14880
2008 584 30 17520
2009 792 25 19800
2010 998 21 20958
2011 1109 20 22180
2012 1216 19 23104

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