What does Google Trends say?
Google Trends is a web-based tool that tracks the number of search queries and news articles submitted for various keywords. Although Google is immensely popular, and so many people use it, the main shortcoming of Google Trends is that it can be unreliable for search terms that don't have a huge amount of volume. This latter group includes the vast majority of search terms important to our industry. However, when you plot a few of the popular-enough terms over a couple of years, Google clearly shows a slowing growth curve. Take, for example, these queries for two popular search terms, "digital signage" and "digital signage software". I added the green line to the first graph to show the approximate "best fit" curve, but these are otherwise unchanged from the Google Trends output:
Discarding seasonal anomalies like the year-end slowdown well known to so many industries, search volume actually peaked in 2008, and saw a very slight decline in 2009. I'm sure the recession played a large part in that, but even during the bulk of 2008 there was little change in the search volume for these terms. What's more, the overall news volume at best held steady during that time. This tells me one of two things: either those companies who normally do lots of PR aren't accelerating their actions (probably because determining the ROI for a given piece of PR is very challenging), or, since there are more companies in the marketplace than ever before (which seems true, anecdotally), the average number of releases per company may actually have declined a bit. If you're wondering about those flat lines on the "digital signage software" trend graph, that's because that term just barely has sufficient search volume to register on Google Trends. If you graph "digital signage" and "digital signage software" together, you can see that "digital signage" by itself gets about an order of magnitude more search volume, on average:
I'm no fan of industry hype, and I suspect everybody knows that by now. So I suppose the above analysis could simply be a case of me wishing that things would change for the better. On the other hand, my company's success depends on the growth and success of the industry, so it's really not in my best interest to think that our growth rate is going to fall off a cliff.
Are there other ways to explain what's happening?
Of course there are, and most of them make things look less dire. For example, since 2007 our industry's main news portals and blogs have become much more popular and professional, so they may be absorbing some of the traffic that would previously have gone to Google. Likewise, there are newsletters, clipping services, magazines and e-zines, and other forms of marketing and news publications that get pushed out to hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people now, which again may be taking some amount of search volume away from Google.
Another explanation is that as our industry matures, we ought to see fewer tire kickers and more serious buyers. On the high end of the business spectrum, these buyers may do fewer and more concentrated searches, or might be turning to other avenues like consultants, trade shows, and partnerships with existing vendors and VARs to learn about products and services. On the low end, mom and pop businesses are probably using a wider variety of search terms based on their particular needs. For example, if people are getting useful search results from a query like "digital restaurant sign" because there are now enough vendors providing that service (and enough articles about it) to make the first web search a success, they might never have the need to do a broader search for "digital signage." Both of these trends -- if correct -- would be great, because they signal the start of our industry's next phase, where solution specificity and bona fide business relationships become increasingly important, making general hype less effective (and thus theoretically less pervasive over time).
What about additional data points?
If it were up to me, I'd have to say that yes, the digital signage industry is growing. It doesn't take a $1,500 research report to notice the huge number of screens being placed in virtually every conceivable out-of-home space these days. However, when it comes to the volume of research being conducted over the Internet, I'm less sure. It seems possible to me that we may have plateaued, in which case we might not see another big spike in activity until a) the economy improves, b) some technical innovation is made that significantly lowers the cost of entry, or c) something dramatically increases the amount of attention that our technology and medium receives. The question is, which of these things will happen, when, and what will be the driving force behind them?
Is the market for digital signage still growing? If so, how quickly, and what's driving that growth? If not, what do you think will spur the next wave of development in our space? Leave a comment below and let me know!