A graph. What can the popularity of search terms tell us about interest in the Sustainable Development Goals? Photo by: Krzysztof Baranski

Public perceptions of the Sustainable Development Goals, which were officially adopted by 193 countries at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York last month, have become a topic of interest among research firms and academic scholars — and for good reason.

In a blog post that summarizes the findings of their research on references to the Millennium Development Goals, John McArthur, senior fellow of global economy and development at the Brookings Institution, wrote: “In order to be achieved [the SDGs] will require ample public and scientific debates. Those will need to diffuse much more broadly and deeply than the MDG-linked deliberations of the past 15 years.”

Project Everyone, an initiative founded by film director Richard Curtis, rests on the same simple but ambitious idea: to share what have also come to be known as global goals with the 7 billion people on the planet. One of Project Everyone’s first activities involved creating awareness about the SDGs through radio — the world’s most accessible medium — within a week of the adoption of the global goals.

But have these efforts to raise awareness really worked? In trying to learn a little more about the general public’s perceptions of these global goals, we turn to Google search terms, which can paint a picture of the popularity of the SDGs across time and across countries.

The trend lines below do not represent the total number of searches for a particular search term, but instead the popularity of that term relative to other searches. While the trend for the term "sustainable development goals" is clearly on an upward trajectory, only time will tell whether the interest in the global goals is sustained and how the goals will move from mere search terms to tangible, real-world applications in developed and developing countries alike.

SDGs only attracted more interest starting January 2015

While the Open Working Group on the SDGs was established in January 2013, it wasn’t until the start of 2015 that the term “sustainable development goals” gained traction. This, of course, isn’t surprising: The expiration of the MDGs in 2015 and the discussion of the new set of global goals that will replace them may have spurred the spread of the term.

Interest in the term “sustainable development goals” over time. Click here to view a larger version.

Search term popularity of SDGs surpassed that of MDGs last month

Juxtaposing “millennium development goals” with “sustainable development goals” shows that the popularity of the latter only surpassed that of the former last month, in the run-up to the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit. Partial Google Trends data for this month shows that while the popularity of “millennium development goals” has plateaued, searches for “sustainable development goals” have shot up.

Interest in “sustainable development goals” (blue line) as compared with “millennium development goals” (red line) over time. Click here to view a larger version.

‘Global goals’ only became synonymous with the SDGs mid-2015

A comparison between “sustainable development goals” and “global goals” clearly shows that the latter, which is a more encompassing term that can be used in various contexts, has been more popular. But for the most part, the headlines corresponding to global goals do not actually pertain to the SDGs. If headlines are anything to go by, then “global goals” only became a synonymous term for the SDGs in the run-up to the U.N. summit.

In May 2014, “sustainable development goals” and “global goals” were equally popular. While the latter became more popular than the former again last month, partial data for October shows that “sustainable development goals” is still the more popular term.

Interest in “sustainable development goals” (blue line) as compared with “global goals” (red line) over time. Click here to view a larger version.

‘Sustainable development goals’ is most popular in India

Contrary to the expectation that some may have about how the SDGs are mostly being discussed in Western countries, the term “sustainable development goals” is actually most popular in India.

Interest in “sustainable development goals,” by country. Click here to view a larger version.

Meanwhile, a closer look at the city-level data shows that the search popularity of the term “sustainable development goals” was higher in Kampala, Nairobi, Accra, Lagos and Dhaka than in Washington, D.C., and New York.

Interest in “sustainable development goals,” by city. Click here to view a larger version.

‘Global goals’ is more popular in developed countries

The dominance of developing countries on the list of locations that are Googling “sustainable development goals” doesn’t necessarily mean that the SDGs aren’t attracting attention in developed countries. An overview of “global goals” shows that the term, unlike “sustainable development goals,” is more popular in developed countries than developing countries.

Interest in “global goals,” by country. Click here to view a larger version.

Meanwhile, looking at how “global goals” is searched by city shows that the term is most popular in Washington, D.C.

Interest in “global goals,” by city. Click here to view a larger version.

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About the author

  • Anna Patricia Valerio

    Anna Patricia Valerio is a former Manila-based development analyst who focused on writing innovative, in-the-know content for senior executives in the international development community. Before joining Devex, Patricia wrote and edited business, technology and health stories for BusinessWorld, a Manila-based business newspaper.