Google Trends is a powerful tool for non-profits

Google Trends for non-profit organizationsUnderstanding the volunteer, donor and client base is very important to the long term viability of any non-profit organization. The best time to be paying attention to your volunteers and donors is when they are paying attention to you. Google Trends can help illuminate those times.

Google Trends works by analyzing search terms typed into the Google search engine at When people search using Google, Google stores that search word along with other key anonymous data. Google Trends uses some of this data, in particular the date when the search word was entered and the location of the user’s computer when the search word was typed in. The location is determined by the Internet Protocol (IP) address the Internet Service Provider (ISP) (like AT&T or Time Warner) has assigned to the user’s computer. Google Trends uses this data to show trends associated with search words in particularly geographic areas over a period of time with data going back to 2004.

But what did the person mean when they typed in that search word? Capturing user intent can be difficult to do. Let’s take the term “brake repair” as an example. A person who searches with this term could be trying to search for videos on how to repair brakes on their bicycle or a shop to fix their car’s brakes. Now if that person types in “brake repair shop” and Google knows they are in Charlotte, NC, via their IP address, she will receive a search results page full of recommended shops with maps and reviews. Typically the more search words, the better one can understand the intent of the search.

So let’s take some specific examples. Many homeless shelters are only open during the cold weather months. Ask any shelter coordinator when volunteering requests are at their peak, it is usually right at the same time the homeless shelter is its busiest. Turns out that is absolutely true. Note the search trend for “homeless volunteering” in the “United States” over time:

Hover your mouse over the chart and you’ll see dates and numbers associated with each date. These numbers are the percentage of the whole interest and are not actual search counts. So on every Google Trends chart, there will be a peak at 100 which is the time that received the most interest over the period shown. These numbers are essential to seeing trends not just activity. You’ll notice a few more things about this chart. First, understanding the user intent is very easy to do. The searcher is looking for volunteering opportunities with homeless people. Note also the interest peaks annually in December during the holiday season when people have more time and spirit to give to such good works. This chart should bring up a series of questions on how the shelter interacts with its volunteer community. You’ve heard about the churchgoers who only go on Easter and Christmas. Again, a truism. Searches for “church services” consistently spike during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Over time, this trend seems to be increasing. It is important to note this trend indicative of an increase in the use of Google search for these types of requests versus showing an overall church trend of an increase in attendance. The user intent of this search term does appear to be very clear.

An interesting trend that shows a marked increase in searches with seasonal fluctuations is the search term “food pantry”. Right away the seasonality of the searches can be seen, but the uptick is pronounced enough to likely show a variety of influence from clients seeking food pantry services to donors looking for places to give.

The challenge with this trend is that the term “food pantry” itself doesn’t present a clear user intent. Let’s try some variations. The term “food drive” does speak more directly to intent in that the search would likely be looking for donation points or “how-to” techniques on food drives:

An even more specific search term “donate food” gets right to the heart of the user’s intent:

So now what? Use Google Trends with a plan. Think of your organizations clients, donors and volunteers and build short lists of search terms you think capture the intent that would align with your organizations objectives. Test and retest these terms in Google Trends. Use the Google Trend charts to know when these audiences are paying attention to your organization and react accordingly with your response.

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