Koios Data

What Does Your Community Want?

Using Google Search Data for Planning and Outreach

Peter Velikonja, Head of Research, Koios LLC | peter (at)

delivered ALA Midwinter Conference January 2019, CIL Conference March 2019


Libraries generally have a good idea of what their patrons are interested in, but Google, to whom patrons routinely address their questions, has the data. Using Google's API, we tried out a few hundred themed key-phrases in 3000 public library service areas. The results confirmed some of our assumptions, and also included surprises. A survey like ours can inform library marketing efforts, and help administrators with resource management and planning.


At our company, we work to raise the online presence of libraries, which we do today with Google advertising. We say, somewhat poetically:
"When a person begins their journey, seeking information, where do they go first? They go to Google. Let's meet them there."
It's a good story, and it rings true.

We try to anticipate what a person might search for:
  1. We think of the resources available at a library.
  2. We set up a collection of likely keywords with Google; then...
  3. Hope to make a match.


Let's say you live in Chattanooga TN and you type 'passport' into Google...
You might see an ad we set up there that tells you your local library runs a passport service. And you say "I had no idea..."

That's a situation where a library has a resource people are interested in, but nobody knows it. Another is where a library wishes to start up a program, but can't fully anticipate community interest.

Our business is about making those connections.

Connections Part II

To make more connections, I want to think about intersections between: I can learn about library resources, they are publicly available. But what do people type into Google? I don't know.

What do people type into anything? Let's look at two feeds.

Toronto Public Library - Catalog Feed

I really like this catalog feed from Toronto Public Library, I find it mildly exciting to see these searches being made in real time. But I confess I get a little bit stuck when I start thinking about what I can do with it. Do these searches represent community interests? I think they do, although I remind myself that people are more likely to pre-focus their searches to fit their understanding of library resources. Libraries are full of surprises these days, I doubt these searches can keep up.

Real-Time Twitter Feed

I am not so crazy about this Twitter feed (taken real-time from Seattle) because, at the root of it, these entries don't have search motivation. Yes, they represent interest, and with my own personal AI (or 'WI') I can see themes and keywords pop out that are relevant to libraries. But having interest is not the same as expressing interest; so this stream has considerably less value for me.
Twitter feed [click]

Library Themes

Realistically, Twitter posts are too general for me and I can see the catalog feed is already too focused for me. But I can't really use either without categorization. Words falling from the sky are great, they represent interest coming from the public. But if I want to know how this rain relates to my programs, I gotta put out some buckets.

Themes I chose for this research project.

Using Google Ads API to Find Keywords

When you advertise with Google, they provide you with a number of handy research tools; one of them is a keyword-ideas generator: you send Google a word or phrase and you get back a crazy list of alternatives that they think are related. If I try 'Frankenstein' I get back 'Mary Shelley' and some other stuff that is usually related (but not always).

Frankenstein 'ideas' volume+keyword [click]
Passport 'ideas' volume+keyword [click]
A Google advertiser uses these ideas to form a thematically grouped set of keywords called a campaign.

Targeted Search Volume

You can see in the image that, with each permutation on 'frankenstein', Google gave me a value for average monthly searches (for the US). That's nice, especially because I can target a location for a keyword and get back the number of searches for an individual keyword in a specied location -- from country, state, county, city, down to zip code. Now that's handy, because if I send in a group of related keywords, and specify a unique location, I can perhaps get a snapshot of user interest for a particular theme, in a defined place. Let's say I try Frankenstein, Dracula, Klaus Kinski, and Boris Karloff in different locations, I get:
Chattanooga TN (pop: 200K)
140 'frankenstein'
50 'dracula'
10 'klaus kinski'
30 'boris karloff'

Portland OR (pop: 650K)
590 'frankenstein'
320 'dracula'
90 'klaus kinski'
140 'boris karloff'

Milwaukee WI (pop:1.7M)
320 'frankenstein'
210 'dracula'
30 'klaus kinski'
90 'boris karloff'

I infer from this that people in Portland lean toward monster movies.

Community Insights

There are about 9000 public libraries in the US, I took the 3000 largest, and got location-specific search volumes for the themes I articulated above (passports, how-to ...).

Community Insights demo (individual libraries)
In this visualization, a campaign-theme is presented as a word-cloud. The size of each word tells you how often it appears in the campaign (passport, get a passport, passport application) and its intensity tells you the search volume associated with it -- so the word can be small, but if it is very blue it means people type it in a lot. I called it a campaign-tuner because it can be used to weed out low-interest keywords and to identify the higher-performing ones. I can dial up a library (click library name at top and enter a new one) and read its tea leaves. The word cloud gives an initial impression of the campaign, the real interest lies in the high-volume keywords within those groups.

USA Profile

Comparing Libraries to US Standard

Now I want to look at relative strengths between communities using the whole of US for reference.

Distance from US Profile

When this demo first fires up, it shows relative search volumes for the US. The plot at the top (looks like an audio signal) shows the 3000 polled libraries. The height of each is its population (not service pop), or, actually, Google's idea of reach. With the slider on the bottom you can zip past lots of libraries in a hurry. The point of this plot is to give a high-level view, and you can see how individual libraries compare to the US profile.

What we see in this demo is that, yes, there are variations, but mostly there is remarkable continuity.

Hot Keywords

Another lesson learned here is about grouping. You would think that somehow community interests would express themselves through one of these themes, and you would see a group of words amplified, but it doesn't really seem to work that way. Instead we see individual keywords vault to the top, pulling the group up with them. The wordcloud visualization is good for these accidental discoveries.


Top-Five View

If we look at how the same theme plays across different libraries, it seems that the same keywords are always there at the top. If a different keyword sneaks to the top once in a while it is a pleasant surprise, and, since it is unusual, it is an indicator.

When we see a pattern that steps out of the norm, we can look into it and see where it leads.

Measuring Public Interest

A strategic planning process generally includes an effort to learn what the public is interested in. A survey is a traditional way to accomplish that, but it is a deeply flawed method.

To complement a survey, libraries look for something wider and flatter. They observe computer users, for example, convene a focus group, or examine census data.

Website Data

Let's go back to Toronto. I harvested the feed we saw above for the month of December (2018) and collected almost 800,000 searches, so I let it go a bit longer until I had 1M.
Their search bar is at the top of their home page and is a catalog search with a few general items thrown in (like 'get a library card'). If I pass those searches through the same themes I have been using, I get about 2600 matches, and I can compare that profile to the Google search profile.

If we can get past the scale difference, the library search profile looks different than the Google-derived profile, which should interest strategic planners thinking about reaching new patrons. 'Criterion Collection' is roughly the same. And yes, the 'passport' theme is empty: a million searches and nobody typed in 'passport'. Actually, I found that so incredible that I went back and checked, and I found two searches:
passport and ballot
library passport

So you have, from the general public, some opportunities:


The goal of this analysis is to discover intersections between library resources and public interest areas.

In a Nutshell

Thanks, Buddy, Now How Can I Do This Myself?

A Peek at Current Work

Comparing a Website to Google Traffic

The Seattle Public Library website has:
  • 5931 total files (low = ~500, high = 150K+)
    • 3283 HTML docs
    • ~1700 images
    • 778 mp3 audio files
    • other (pdf, xml ...)

A super-simple matchup between themes and the HTML docs.

Pull out 75K unique phrases with NLP noun-phrase extraction.
Top 500 SPL Website 'phrases' [click]

Now if I check those phrases with Google I get this map.


Fun with Google Trends...
3D Printing
Horror Movies
Sign Language