Saturday, 31 August 2013

Are we loosing interest in the Fynbos? Insights from Google Trends

A second paper appeared in the latest issue of the journal 'Conservation Biology' using the online tool Google Trends to determine interest in the environment. The first paper I'd read on the topic was depressing – a review of 20 or so search terms suggested a declining interest in conservation and the environment generally. 

These got me thinking how I'd be able to use the tool for my own research. What followed was a steep learning curve. My first search term was 'Cape Sugarbird' but there have not been enough searches on this topic to generate any data. Sugarbird did – but it was linked to online sweet stores. 

This means one has to have a pretty clear search criteria so that the results mean something – using Harrier for instance has few results linked to the bird, but more to the aeroplane. Fynbos (that broad habitat type equivalent to grasslands and rainforests, but found only in South Africa), however, turns out to be a pretty unique South African phrase with no associated branding. 98% of the search traffic associated with this term originates in South Africa, and most of that from Stellenbosch. Furthermore, there are no large companies that have hijacked the name (in contrast to Amazon).  

The results in Google Trends are all normalised and scaled to the period of peak traffic – so they don't represent real traffic. One can compare relative search interest by using other related terms. Karoo is another pretty unique South African biome, and when I compared Fynbos results to Karoo (using the default setting which include results from pretty much the whole world), it looked like Karoo is gaining popularity compared to Fynbos. However, it turns out that Karoo is also likely a Burmese word, and with more and more of Burma coming online (thank you democracy!), the increasing trend in that line is likely as a result of that. Karoo is also a UK based internet service provider.

So it pays in this case to restrict the trend results for a comparison to just South Africa. There is a difference in the levels of the line because Karoo is also an internet service provider. But otherwise, its looking at related search terms that helps provide insights as to who is searching for these terms. For instance, the main associated search terms with Karoo for South Africa are associated with tourist destinations including Klein Karoo, Karoo National Park and Tankwa Karoo. 

Now at least restricting the geographic scopt to South Africa means the trend line for Karoo is relatively constant over time. Google Trends also helps explain why there are peaks and troughs in some search patterns by inserting key online news snippets. So for instance, the Fynbos shows a peak in world traffic around 2009 (top chart). This was also a time when Table Mountain was on fire, and the threat of Cape Town going up in smoke was making the news internationally. 

As an interesting comparison, here is how the battle for South Africa's top cities is panning out... Cape Town is a clear winner, with Durban catching up to Johannesburg in 2012 due to the COP17 Climate Change talks that were held there.  On the other hand, no-one is interested in Bloemfontein.  

Which brings us onto interpreting these charts. A rising line generally means more internet related search traffic, but in line with overall internet usage – which is increasing all the time. This means a steady or decreasing line may be the result of diluted interest as the array of internet search terms increases. The overall trend for Fynbos is a decreasing one, which could suggest the local market is saturated. There is definitely scope for marketing the Fynbos to the worldwide audience – how we do it is another question.

Erica species are an important component of the Fynbos

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