Priceonomics

The Google nGram Viewer lets anyone search through over 5 million books that Google has digitized to see how frequently a word or phrase is used in a given language over time. 

Google suggests using the service for academic purposes (to study how people describe the education of young children) or for pure entertainment (to see the popularity of the Loch Ness Monster compared to Bigfoot).

When we discovered it, we found a source of data whose ability to improve human knowledge or instill a sense of wonder was limited only by our imagination.

But we lacked imagination. Since we are a startup, we typed “startup” and hit enter. This is the result:

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The data (which is smoothed here) tells a straightforward story. The word was effectively unknown prior to World War II and coined sometime in the fifties, slowly rose in popularity from the eighties to the new millenium as tech gained prominence, and then crashed with the dot com bubble in 2000-2001.

Here is the data again, this time without smoothing and including the term “start-up” to control for a possible change in popularity of the hyphenated version.

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The nGram data only runs through 2008, but we can look at the popularity of the word startup, as measured by number of Google searches, through 2013 by using the Google Trends tool. It continues its decline over time:

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The term venture capital follows a similar pattern on nGram and Trends:

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The phrase Silicon Valley sees less consistent growth, but it also drops precipitously in 2005. Perhaps everyone was busy writing about the bubble for a few years after it burst?

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It continues to drop recently in Trends, with the exception of a spike in searches when Steve Jobs passed away:

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The words “entrepreneurship” and “entrepreneur” don’t fit our story as cleanly, although they do seem to have leveled off over the past decade:

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Here in Trends, entrepreneurship is in red and entrepreneur in blue:

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The Google data seems to fit with our anecdotal picture of the rise of Silicon Valley and its fall after the dot com bubble. But it does not reflect the attention paid to Silicon Valley more recently, as Facebook inspired a movie and countless articles, Twitter and (briefly) Groupon became the talk of the town, and every large evaluation prompted debate over whether it represents a new bubble.

Is the Google data somehow missing the return to prominence of Silicon Valley and startups? Is the only bubble the tech world’s sense that everyone is paying attention to us? What’s going on?

Let us hear your theories in the comments.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google.



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