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If you want to know which trends are growing more popular and which are sinking toward “jump the shark” status, look at Google Trends.
The tool, kind of a search engine within a search engine, reveals the popularity – or unpopularity – of a given search keyword. Its results reflect mega-patterns of what people are thinking about (if you accept the thesis that Internet searches equals the public’s level of interest).
The data goes back to 2004, so Google Trends often shows a multi-year trend of ascendance. Or, poignantly, a multi-year sinking trend line that suggests a given person or thing is yesterday’s lunch meat.
This tool is good way to get a forward-looking glimpse of what tech trends are coming or going. Take, for example, the Google Trends data for Bill Gates. Mr. Gates generates a whole lot of searches – almost as many as Tom Cruise. But you’ll notice that, apart from a few spikes (his CES keynote, or when he lost “richest man in the world” status) his trend line is beginning to fade. (For that matter, Tom Cruise is also pretty flat, even a tad lower, which makes sense; both Cruise and Gates are icons whose glory days are behind them.)
One of the most effective ways to use Google Trends is to compare two concepts. Enter two related trends in the search box and Google spits out a graph that reveals their relative popularity over time.
As an extreme example of two contrasting tech trends, look at the graph that compares searches for AOL and Google:
You’ll note that Google is attracting almost six times as many searches as AOL. No surprise there. In fact, looking at the trend line, you might wonder: is AOL still in business? (Yes it is, but is there anyone still using an AOL email address?)
Here are two trend lines that are better matched:
Wow, look at those spikes for the iPod back in 2005-06. At the time, you were a nobody without an iPod, remember? These days you can see similar spikes driving iPhone mania, and even – gasp – overtaking the cultural buzz surrounding the once zeitgeist-defining iPod.
To illustrate the growth of the laptop, I used the search terms ‘buy laptop’ and ‘buy PC’. (The term ‘buy desktop’ get comparatively few searches; it’s likely that most shoppers search for 'PC', not 'desktop'.) Based on shopper interest online, it looks like the desktop is on its way to relic status. Some day, it seems, very few people will want a stationary computer.
(By the way, the top result for the term “desktop” is the page for ‘Google Desktop download’. Is Google favoring itself? Could Google’s desktop product really be the absolute most compelling result for the zillions of people who search for ‘desktop’? It must be nice to run your own search engine, huh?)
Both SaaS (software as a service), meaning to access software over the Net instead of installing it on your hard drive, and virtualization, a method of divvying up a hard drive to install different OSes, are on the rise.
SaaS is likely ahead because it’s popular among both consumers and businesses, while virtualization is largely for business users, though some serious geeks use it on their personal machines.
The graph above shows the extent to which Ubuntu isLinux for many users. Clearly, Linux still has more total searches, but Ubuntu is coming on strong. The trend lines suggests that either 1) Linux is losing steam, or 2) everyone who’s interested has already found it, so the searches are leveling off.
Notice that the interest in IT certifications has drifted lower over the last few years. Some experts say that certs are less important, that employers look for experience over certifications, though that opinion is disputed. At the same time, interest in IT salaries has held steady over the last three years, even moving slightly higher in today’s turbulent job market. Amid the general malaise in the economy, the tech job market continues to be healthy, so perhaps IT pros are tracking salary trends with job-hopping in mind.
Ah, the mighty do fall. Who would ever have guessed, in MySpace’s fifteen minutes of fame – in those surging months of early 2007 – that the sprawling teen networking hub would so soon begin to whither? Once an absolute necessity for every teenager in America, now it suffers from a case of AOL-itis, almost terminally unhip. And you can see where its users are heading: Facebook is trending nearly parabolic.
Here’s an interesting one. Digg runs leagues ahead of Reddit, especially during its brightest year, 2007. But look at what’s happening in 2008: Digg is losing altitude, as Reddit is showing a steady, albeit modest, move upward. Has Digg jumped the shark?
This one is quizzical. Perhaps it’s to be expected that Bluetooth is flat – are users really that excited about, say, getting rid of that wire between their mouse and the PC? But could Wireless also be flat, even modestly down, over the last few years? In the middle of an explosion in the use of mobile devices? Hmmm…maybe Google Trends isn’t the prognostic device it appears to be…