Searching for Meaning in Google’s RFID Statistics

By Mark Roberti

Google searches indicate interest in the technology is ebbing, but the truth is more complex.

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For the past few years, Google has been displaying flu trends in various countries by tracking how many people are searching for information about the flu and where they are located. A recent article in The New York Times, Fashion Is Trending, in Google Searches, reveals how a study of 6 billion Google searches during a three-year period "shows how clothing styles spread from state to state."

Google is a good indicator of interest in a specific topic. If you go to Google Trends and type in RFID, you will see that searches for the term "RFID" peaked in 2005 and now are about a fifth of what they were then (Google doesn't show the actual number of searches, just the relative change in search volume). It's no surprise, perhaps, that searches have declined since RFID was at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, but what about more recent history? Since the financial crisis in 2008, search volume has declined by roughly half, and during the past 18 months or so it has remained relatively flat.

Graphs: Google Trends / RFID Journal

Google searches do indicate the relative interest the world has in a particular topic. And there is no doubt that back in 2005, RFID was a hot topic. Walmart, the U.S. Department of Defense and others had just begun requiring suppliers to RFID-tag shipments. Since those heady days, RFID has followed the classic Gartner pattern and entered the downward part of the cycle the research firm calls the "trough of disillusionment." Interest—and searches—have waned.

But Google stats don't tell the whole story. The number of searches doesn't tell you the level of interest among those searching for a specific topic. Do people who saw the term RFID somewhere simply get a definition and never pay attention to it again—or do they keep researching the topic, with an interest in using the technology inside their companies?

We compared Google searches during the past six years with the number of referrals RFID Journal received from Google during the same period. That is, how many of the people who typed "RFID" into Google then clicked on RFID Journal to learn more about the technology? It turns out that as the number of Google searches for RFID has been declining, the number of referrals has been increasing—from an average of 47,368 per month in 2009 to an average of 64,631 per month in 2015.

What explains this 36 percent increase in referrals to an RFID website when general searches for RFID have declined by 50 percent? We can infer from the data that while general interest in RFID has declined, the number of people serious about deploying the technology has increased.

I believe general interest in RFID has declined because people are more familiar with the term. When Walmart announced in 2003 that it would require its top 100 suppliers to RFID-tag pallets and cases beginning in January 2005, it sparked a great deal of media buzz. Some articles claimed RFID would make bar codes obsolete. Others raised privacy concerns. Most people had never heard about RFID prior to this. Both businesspeople and consumers Googled RFID to learn what it was, and whether it could help their companies or it threatened their privacy.

By the time of the financial collapse in September 2008, RFID had entered the trough. Most businesspeople understood what RFID was and how early adopters were using it. Many companies put investments in new technology projects on hold, so only those people with a serious business problem continued to search for RFID.

At the same time, visits to RFID Journal's website increased. Businesspeople who had a serious business issue that no other technology could solve, such as inventory problems or loss of returnable transport items, Googled RFID. When they found articles about how others used the technology to address a similar issue, they clicked through to RFID Journal's website.

If you click on "Forecast" on the Google Trend site, it shows searches for "RFID" continuing to decline. That might remain the case during the next year or two. But RFID has emerged from the trough and is now well up the Gartner cycle's "slope of enlightenment," meaning more people are figuring out how to use it. As adoption picks up among those eager to solve a business problem, more articles will be written in the business press. More people will learn that RFID can help them address intractable business issues and better track their physical assets. Expect searches to rise as more people seek RFID solutions.