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Cryptocurrencies exploded from the business pages into the mainstream last year. The astronomical rise of bitcoin and other coins such as Ethereum and Ripple, along with government trading bans and million-dollar exchange hacks dominated headlines.

Taking a look at all this through Google Trends data shows rising interest from developing and planned economies, along with more interest in non-bitcoin cryptocurrencies. Interest spiked along with prices in the back half of the year and has not let up despite recent price fluctuations. The data shows the places where interest grew most and perhaps areas where the technology is expected to prove most transformational.

Bitcoin’s rapid ascent attracted global attention

Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria were among the Top 10 countries searching for the term “bitcoin.” Nigerians, known early and enthusiastic adopters of mobile payments, turned to cryptocurrencies in the face of a depreciating Naira against the US Dollar.

Looking more broadly, countries lacking an accessible and robust banking sector, or that experience significant government controls of the economy and monetary supply, are often referenced as those most likely to benefit from the technology. 

In Bolivia for example,  it is illegal to use any currency that is not issued and controlled by the government – yet it ranked 15th  for ‘bitcoin’ searches. Bangladesh, which deems the use of cryptocurrency a punishable offence, ranked 24th by the same measure.

 As the bitcoin market matured, new search terms emerged. Google search interest in the launch of ‘bitcoin futures’ was dominated by Asian financial hubs, Hong Kong and Singapore.

But not everyone was positive about the currency’s future. Searches for ‘bitcoin bubble’ rose by over 100% in the last 90 days, with related search terms such as ‘dotcom bubble’ drawing parallels with the infamous investment bubble of 2000.

Building communities

Rival cryptocurrencies offer an alternative to bitcoin, which critics claim is hampered by its creaking network, long transaction times, high fees and security concerns. Search volumes for EthereumRipple , IOTA and Cardano have spiked alongside the value of bitcoin.

With many of these digital currencies placing significant emphasis on building a large, active community, competition is growing online. The Ethereum subreddit has 270,000 subscribers and while Cardano, a digital currency built on its own blockchain platform, now has over 70,000 Twitter followers, an active community forum and newsletter readership.

Interest in alternative digital currencies is translating into market capitalisation. According to the Bitcoin Dominance Index, a measure of cryptocurrency market share, bitcoin now controls less than a third of the market.

This is creating an opportunity for others to grow awareness and market share. Competition for ‘how to buy cryptocurrency’ on Google AdWords ranked as ‘high’ with an estimated 10-100 million total related searches.

As retail investors continue to pour into the sector, search visibility for exchanges is also becoming increasingly significant as market leaders continue to ride the wave of growing volumes.

Binance, currently the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, announced it onboarded 240,000 users in less than one hour, as the exchange attempted to meet unprecedented demand. But for others such as Bittrex, the public and media spotlight has been less flattering, as security concerns and hacks continue to disrupt the industry.

What can we learn?

The crypto boom has demonstrated the value of fostering a highly engaged, active community online and converting enthusiasts and market speculators alike into a loyal group of followers willing to invest. While Google Trends clearly shows a spike in search volumes not just for bitcoin, but other forms of digital currency, those able to engage this growing audience by using channels outside of traditional media have built significant communities that should not be underestimated. 2018 looks set to be another defining year for the cryptocurrency market. We will be watching developments closely.

Oliver Mann is an account manager with Cognito in London