A search history of TED

I always find it interesting to look at a cultural phenomenon through the lens of search. Search provides a fascinating and quantitative look at the growth of interest in a particular topic. Having spent all last week immersed in the cult that is TED (I was at TEDActive in Palm Springs) I thought that this was as good a subject as any to analyze.

TED’s Back Story

The TED story, for those of you not familiar with it, is pretty amazing. TED was originally held in Monterey in 1984, the brainchild of Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks. Some of the content on that first TED stage? The unveiling of the Mac, a rep from Sony demonstrating the compact disc, Benoit Mandelbrot talking about fractals and Marvin Minsky speculating on the possibilities of artificial intelligence. The conference, due to its proximity to Silicon Valley, had a decidedly tech heavy focus. The first conference lost money and Wurman didn’t attempt another one until 1990. It was then held annually in Monterey.

In 2001, Chris Anderson took over the show and broadened the focus, adopting a more philanthropic approach. Technology still figured prominently on the TED stage, but the conference became an intellectual smorgasbord of content, with a single session known to veer from musicians to world adventurers, scientists to CEOs.

Probably the biggest change in the fortunes of TED, however, came in 2006 when the world was invited to share in what took part on the TED stage. The talks were video taped and made freely available on line. And it’s here where our search story begins.

TED:TSI (TED Search Investigation)

If you use Google Insights (as I did) you see something interesting begin to happen in the search activity surrounding TED. Through 2004, 2005 and 2006, most of the search activity for TED was about the conference. There were peaks every February when the conference took place, but other than this, the volumes were pretty consistent. There was little year over year growth. TED remained an exclusive club for the intellectually elite. The rest of the world had never heard of it.

In 2006, when the videos were launched, a new trend began. By the end of the year, more people were using search to find the TED talks themselves than to find out about the conference. The gap continued to widen until in 2011, the search popularity of the Talks themselves is almost 3 times as much as query volume for the conference. But volumes for both have seen impressive growth. The conference rode the wave of the popularity of the videos, with query volumes over 10 times the levels seen in 2006. The videos fueled the growth of TED, making it the must see conference of the year.

The Global Mapping of TED

Another interesting trend has been to see how TED has become a global phenomenon. TED talks are most popular in Canada, followed by New Zealand, the US and South Africa. They’ve also shown impressive growth in South Africa, Singapore, Australia and India. And it’s this global popularity that led TED to announce TEDx, in 2009. These are independently organized shows held around the world, with some mentorship and guidance from the TED mother ship. They have been tremendously popular and now search volumes for TEDx have surpassed queries for the main conference. Epicenters of the TEDx tidal wave include the Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, India and Argentina.

If we drill down to the US, we find the greatest concentration of TEDsters (the official moniker of members of the TED community) in Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Surprisingly, California, where the conference is held, doesn’t even make the list of top TED states. Massachusetts, New York and Hawaii all beat it out. The top 10 TED states are all solidly blue (based on the last presidential election) except for Montana.

And because Canada is such a TED hot bed (TED has an office in Vancouver) I’m proud to say that my home province of BC has perhaps the greatest concentration of TED fans in the world, followed by Manitoba, Alberta (which would be the Canadian equivalent of Montana) and Saskatchewan. According to Google, the TED world capital should be Victoria, BC, which has the highest concentration of TED related searches of any city, anywhere. The US Capital? Portland, Oregon. For some reason, TED-mania is very much alive and well here in the Pacific Northwest.

TED has legs!

Finally, you may ask if the wave of TED popularity is sustainable? I had this very conversation last week with another TEDster in Palm Springs. If you look at the growth of all search volumes so far in 2011, I would say the TED wave has barely begun. Volumes have sky rocketed this year in every category I looked at. If you compare the query volume graphs to a typical S shaped adoption curve, you would conclude that TED is just beginning a massive growth spurt. Get used to hearing about TED, because that will be happening a lot in the future…especially if you’re visiting Victoria or Portland.

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider Mar 10. 2011