Do Google searches for “facebook” mirror African Internet growth trends?
Google Trends Interest over time allows us to view search trends for specific geographic areas by month. Since Facebook use is synonymous with Internet use in the majority of African countries, we’ve attempted to use search interest for the network to make conjectures about the stage of African Internet growth in each African nation. We’ve come up with multiple hypotheses about why search interest either grows, shrinks, or remains steady over a period of time.
An increase in search volume could mean users search for “facebook” to learn what Facebook is. Or, many simply Google the site itself instead of typing the URL directly. either way, rapid growth in searches for the network clearly signal an increase in user-base, engagement, or both.
An example from Mali:
Nations experiencing an increase over the past couple of years:
- Burkina Faso
- Chad (data since June 2012)
- Cote d’Ivoire
- Kenya (after a 2 year decline)
- Libya (after decline in 2011)
- Sierra Leone
This could mean switching to other networks but most likely the trend is high societal awareness of what the network is. Hence no need to Google it. In addition, it’s likely many users eventually use a bookmark or rely on auto-fill to visit the URL directly.
Still, in Nigeria, there is talk that Facebook engagement is on the decline. The number of total users is growing, but the number of monthly active users has reportedly decreased in recent months. Of all countries with Trends data, Lagos did see the earliest relative decline in search interest for “facebook” (starting in 2011).
Nations experiencing an decrease over the past few months:
- Angola (since February 2013)
- Ghana (since September 2012)
- Mauritius (since August 2011)
- Namibia (since January 2012)
- Nigeria (Lagos since 2011)
- Sudan (since September 2011)
- Tanzania (since September 2012)
- Zimbabwe (since January 2013)
A flat search interest doesn’t necessarily mean a decline in user growth. More likely, it signals that the growth rate has slowed so that a similar number of users search for the site (newer users) as head to the site directly. Moreover, a plateau in search interest doesn’t necessarily mean a high rate of Facebook access. The trend could mean those who can access the platform already do and that a large share of the population simply doesn’t have the means to access Facebook – yet.
South Africa is a good example:
Nations experiencing little change over the past year:
- The Gambia
- Nigeria (excluding Lagos)
- South Africa
Note: The above analysis is not scientific but does accurately represent Google search trends for the term “facebook”.