Google Trends, Working from Home, and Digital Transformation

Google Trends presents excellent opportunities for Internet Librarians to examine differences in terminology and popularity of search topics over time.

It doesn't take a great deal of introspection or a lot of online searching to realise that, in 2020, the trend was towards working from home. Libraries closed down in March, as did offices, schools, and some retail establishments. Many remain closed, some after re-opening and then closing again. Others are open with limited capacity. As Dobrica Savic, Head, Nuclear Information Section (NIS) Division of Planning, Information and Knowledge Management, Department of Nuclear Energy, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria, noted in his Grey Journal article ("COVID-19 and Work from Home: Digital Transformation of the Workforce," v. 16, n. 2, Summer 2020). "This sudden need for work from home is driving the digital transformation of the workforce and the evolution of the work environment at an unprecedented speed."

The same is true of digital transformation in libraries. It has enjoyed steady, but relatively slow, progress. The pandemic jump started the process. As moving toward digital transformation went from a distant goal to a panicky "why didn't we do this yesterday", librarians did their best to focus on the needs of their constituencies while coping with not having a physical library at their disposal. No interlibrary loan of print books; a shift in budgets toward digital resources; and a dependance on an internet connection became the norm.

What's the Word?

For those researching digital transformation in libraries, and for those caught up in the maelstrom of digitally transforming, a look at terminology is enlightening. Google Trends is an excellent place to start. This is, of course, not the only use for Google Trends. In the business world, people use it to research brand popularity and identify new areas for product marketing. Health professionals use it to track interest in various health conditions. Keep in mind that, according its FAQ, Google Trends "merely reflects the search interest in particular topics" and its data should only "be considered as one data point among others before drawing conclusions". Despite those caveats, it's a good place to glean suggestions for the wording of search queries.

In his paper, Savic used Google Trends to compare the phrases "telecommuting" and "remote work" from 7 January 2020 to 6 April 2020 with Google's Worldwide option. Both showed a spike in mid-March, but the instances of searches with the "remote work" phrase were more frequent. Although many people use the terms interchangeably, Savic sees subtle differences. Those differences are more apparent now that remote working is the norm.

Prior to the pandemic, the terms "telecommuting" and "teleworking" were often also used interchangeably. However, as Google Trends shows, the prevalence of "telecommuting" in searches was more pronounced than "teleworking" in the United States than in the United Kingdom. The pattern was also very different.

Here's trends in the United States for the past 12 months:

Here's the trends in the UK over the past 12 months:

Trending Topics

As we progressed through 2020 (although many would not call it progress), terminology changed a bit. Other terms started trending as well. Running Google Trends comparisons, with the Worldwide option, for "work from home" (in blue), "remote working" (in red), "working from home" (in yellow), and the acronym "WFH" (in purple) showed similar spikes in March, dwindling towards the end of the year, but with "work from home" still a much more popular search phrase than the other three.

Google Trends for the four terms:

There is always the reminder that worlds can have different meaning from what the searcher intended. In Google Trends, you can scroll down to "Compared breakdown by subregion." This shows a map of where terms were most likely to appear along with "Related queries". One of these, about remote working, made me laugh out loud. It was "Why is my remote not working?"

New Year's Resolution

It's also worth noting that Google does an end of year trends analysis every year. What was trending in Google searches in 2020? As you might expect, Coronavirus hit number 1 in both general searches and news. Libraries were not on the list, nor was digital transformation, but that doesn't mean that individual searches on those topics were non-existent. Google Trends offers many insights, both into language and popularity, that can inform the creation of search strategies and the analysis of current events. It is a valuable tool for information professionals. If you haven't experimented with it, make a New Year's Resolution to do so.