Do people still care about conservation? Google it

Featured ImageScreenshot of a google search for the word “Conservation.” Credit: Abby Lewis

Reference: Burivalova, Z., Butler, R. A., & Wilcove, D. S. 2018. Analyzing Google search data to debunk myths about the public’s interest in conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1962

Is the general public losing interest in conservation? With a constant barrage of news about new extinctions and environmental crises, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the latest environmental news. Some conservation scientists now argue that public support for conservation, the process of preserving and protecting natural ecosystems, has been decreasing since as early as 2007.

Two scientists at Princeton University and the founder of mongabay.com, a leading environmental news site, heard these claims and wanted to test whether public interest in conservation is actually fading. So they did what any of the rest of us would do — they googled it.

Google Trends

Google provides a service called Google Trends, where anyone can look up a topic and see how often the phrase or word has been searched. If you haven’t played around with google trends, you should check it out! It is surprisingly addictive.

The web page allows visitors to easily see how often a term is used in a given month, compare several terms, and look at these data on a statewide to national level. For example, here’s a graph of how often people have looked up the word “election” in the United States since 2004:

Screenshot of a google trends search for the word election. There are large peaks in presidential election years and smaller peaks in midterm election years
Screenshot of a google trends search for the word “election.” Credit: Abby Lewis

You can clearly see peaks in presidential election years (2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016) as well as smaller peaks during midterm election years (2006, 2010, and 2014).

Or, remember when “yolo” (You Only Live One) became popular in 2012? Here’s what that looks like in Google searches:

Screenshot of a google trends search for the word "yolo". You can see a clear peak 2011-2012, and steady decrease after 2012.
Screenshot of a google trends search for the word “yolo.” Credit: Abby Lewis

You can also look at how searches separate out geographically. With Thanksgiving coming up in two weeks, here’s a map of where people have been searching for the word “turkey”:

Screenshot of a google trends search for the word "turkey" showing that the word is most commonly searched in the US
Screenshot of a google trends search for the word “turkey.” Credit: Abby Lewis
The Math

Burivalova and her colleagues took this powerful tool, and instead of searching for “yolo”, they used it to track a bigger issue: the supposed decrease in concern for conservation over time.

To do so, they needed to account for the fact that Google doesn’t report the total number of searches for a given term, rather they show the percentage of all total google searches that were searches for this term. So, for example, if 10 people searched for “envirobites” in May and June, but fewer people used Google in May, the proportion would be higher in May and lower in June.

Furthermore, when google trends reports the data, they standardize it by finding the month with the most searches for the given term and represent data for every other month on the interval as a percentage of this highest value. In the example above, May had a greater proportion of searches so May would have a value of 100 and June would have a slightly lower value.

For this paper, Burivalova and colleagues wanted to know the total number of searches for conservation-related terms, rather than the relative values reported by google trends. So, they took the relative values that Google reported, estimated the total number of Google searches each month, and effectively did Google’s calculations in reverse. Here’s what they found:

The Results

Good news! According to this study, interest in conservation (as represented by Google searches for conservation-related terms) has been increasing steadily since 2004. While the relative proportions of searches for conservation-related terms may have decreased slightly, the absolute number of searches has increased substantially over time.

 

Graph of trends for conservation related terms. The frequency with which all terms were used increases over time
Relative frequency of searches for several conservation-related terms. Dotted lines represent trends in the relative frequency of searches, while solid lines represent the back-calculated values. Graph from Burivalova, 2018

 

Furthermore, these searches are not localized to North America and Europe; the highest frequency of searches for “conservation” were found in East Africa, Nepal, and India. These areas have been actively involved in international conservation programs like REDD+ (check out this recent envirobites post for more information), so this is a promising sign that those policies are gaining popular attention.

 

Frequency of searches for conservation worldwide. Highest in East Africa
Frequency of searches for “Conservation.” Image from Burivalova, 2018
Conclusions

The authors of this paper were thrilled to see that interest in conservation is increasing over time. Of course, searches for conservation do not necessarily equate to support for conservation, but frequent searches indicate a growing awareness of environmental issues that will be essential in promoting conservation efforts in the future. This study shows that the efforts of science communicators and activists (like the envirobites blog!) have already made substantial progress on an international scale.

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Abigail Lewis

I am a fourth-year undergraduate at Pomona College with interests in limnology, microbial ecology, and nutrient cycling. In between rehearsals, hikes, and long dinners I am working to build a career that will address environmental issues and build a more inclusive scientific community.

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