Out of curiosity, I recently spent some time banging keywords into Google Insights for Search and Google Trends, two tools that provide charts showing the popularity of certain terms in search queries and news reports. Of the numerous themes I explored, the trend that surprised me the most is the apparent waning of interest in green technology (a.k.a “cleantech”). Take, for example, the following search terms and phrases: “bike commuting”, “home solar”, “solar installation”, “home wind power”, “biofuel”, “hybrid car”, “plug-in hybrid”, “electric car”, and “prius”. In Google Insights for Search, each of these terms showed a dramatic peak in search interest in the summer of 2008, with declining interest ever since.

I don’t pretend to be able to determine the cause, but I am happy to speculate and talk about correlation.

First, note that President’s Obama’s election campaign was running throughout 2008, with perhaps its most active period being the summer of 2008 – the same time period in which interest in so many green technologies peaked. It seems that after the election, consumers’ active interest in cleantech solutions has faded.

Also in 2008, interest in the search terms “foreclosure” and “mortgage default” peaked, most dramatically in the United States. A few months later, early in 2009, searches on “loan restructuring”, “loan relief”, “repossession”, “mortgage rates”, and even “cheap recipes” jumped dramatically. Were people feeling an economic pinch and losing their interest in green technologies because they no longer had money to pay for them? Searches for “mutual funds” seem to have stabilized at roughly half their pre-recession levels.

Those without mortgage trouble seem to have become worried at the same time debtors were growing distracted, because the search phrases “gold bullion”, “civil unrest”, “ar-15”, and “9mm” jumped. Interest in the phrase “underwater mortgage” jumped up from near zero in 2008 to spike in early 2009, then spike at yet higher levels in 2010.

More mundane, yet practical green technologies seem to have had more staying power. Interest in the phrase “energy efficient”, for example, didn’t drop off until the summer of 2010. Perhaps that is due to the widely understood notion that energy efficiency saves money, whereas alternative energy, at least without subsidies, may not.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. You can access Google Insights for Search directly and run your own queries.

P.S. Unrest is brewing

I didn’t just explore green tech. People’s search habits can say something about the state of society too. For example, interest seems to be stagnating, rather than rising, for things one would expect to see associated with a rise in frugality. Some examples are inexpensive family games typically viewed as budget entertainment, e.g.: “chess”, “backgammon”, “jigsaw puzzle”, and “cribbage”. Perhaps this is due to continued mortality of the elderly, those who grew up on such low-tech diversions. If search trends are an indicator, perhaps the budget entertainment void has been filled by Facebook and Twitter, both of which have experienced rising interest in the past two years.

I also observed a worrying trend that reflects a deep-seated lack of confidence in society as a whole: an uptick in searches related to the a fringe survivalist movement, aspects of which are often associated with anti-government militias. Even while interest in practical survival and firearms-related topics like “wilderness survival”, “first aid”, and “hunting” have been dropping off, “ammo”, “223”, “12ga”, “remington buckshot”, “pump shotgun”, “home defense”, “survival weapon”, and “survival knife” are well-above pre-recession levels. Such sustained interest in weapons and ammo while interest in hunting and wilderness survival decreases leads me to conclude that a lot of people are hoarding guns and ammo, or at least would like to do so. Moreover, they are the sort of people who search on the term “ammo” rather than “ammunition”, as the trends for these two words show very distinct shapes (searches on “ammo” remain elevated, while interest in “ammunition” is down to its pre-2008 levels).

This is all very interesting, though regrettably not terribly actionable. That is, unless you are trying to decide whether to invest in cleantech or ammunition companies. Do with it what you will.