Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
I was talking recently to a colleague who wondered what might be the expected level of usage of online reference resources in public libraries. From her own, academic library perspective, there was a clear relation between what a faculty might suggest as a resource and its expected use. In a public library, she thought, without any indication of the possible level of demand the selection process for electronic resources was either more complex or a question of chance.
There is a role for us as librarians to at least try to anticipate future trends that may have an impact on our services. There are two important aspects. First we should take a long hard look at our users, clients, customers, call them what you will, in order to ascertain how their demands for information will change, not only in terms of content, but also, and perhaps more crucially, in terms of delivery systems and information architecture. Second, we should look at the information market – again trying to spot trends and investigating how markets might operate in say, ten to 15 years’ time.
One of the key elements that needs to be ascertained when conducting an online search is the most popular search terms in use for a particular concept or topic. This measure of popularity has been made available free via the recently launched Google Trends, part of the Google search engine empire. It is also very useful for doing quick pieces of research; simply put, this handy program counts the occurrence of a particular phrase or search term and plots this trend over time on a graph that is displayed on screen. So, for instance, the word tsunami as a search term peaked in the last days of December 2004 – prior to this the term had not been used enough to register on Google trends. After this there was only one slight peak and that was for the anniversary of the Indonesian tsunami.
The really interesting point, however, is that you can actually see where in the world the searches came from. For instance when I type “information literacy” into the search box Google Trends tells me that the term was at peak popularity in 2004 and then dipped – i.e. less people were using “information literacy” as a search term in Google during 2005. During 2006 it has started to rise again. The locations from which it is most often searched are South Africa, New Zealand and Malaysia – Ireland is fifth, Australia is seventh, the USA ninth, and the UK does not appear. Anyone undertaking a global overview can therefore safely assume that “information literacy” is a more popular search term in the Southern Hemisphere.
The other use for Google Trends is to compare two similar search concepts. Separating “information literacy” and “media literacy” with a comma, one would get a trend that showed which was the more popular term.
This is certainly an interesting piece of technology in development. The team that are working on “trends” at Google have plenty of disclaimers and statistical caveats that need to be borne in mind. Google Trends seems to capture the imagination of most people. At a learning technology seminar I attended recently there was huge interest shown in the results of various enquiries – people find it almost addictive. For librarians, ever since, and indeed probably well before, electronic search systems were invented there has been a wish to understand the information seeking habits of users. Now with Google Trends at least part of the sometimes mysterious behaviour becomes easier to solve. Our profession may have a passing interest in the Google Trends project, perhaps curious to see how certain terms compete with each other. For example, “God” comes in a poor second to “Google”. However, those likely to be most interested in the behaviour of Google searchers are of course members of the marketing profession. The concentrated and often highly revealing trails left behind by potential consumers will probably be highly sought after data and it is surely towards this final commercial destination that the current project has set its course. For the moment this free tool provides a novel way to gain feedback on the social dimensions of the twenty-first century phenomenon that is Google.
Rónán O’BeirneInternet Editor, Reference Reviews, and Principal Libraries Officer: Information, Libraries, Archives and Information Service, Bradford, UK