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Analyzing COVID-19 effects through Google Search Data

Trends in Google Search: A Series

The emergence of COVID-19 has impacted the culture, society, and the minds of the world. This event will undoubtedly alter countries as plagues and infectious diseases have left a lasting impact on civilizations throughout history.

As we move toward the new world ahead, we will see major changes to our societies as we adapt and gain exposure to new concepts, experiences, and lifestyles — the trick, is to understand these trends before and as they happen.

To gain a new perspective on the trends that are emerging from this colossal event, I have turned to one of my favorite data resources, Google Trends (GT). GT is a lesser-known site produced by Google. It allows you to grab a glimpse into the mindset, worries, interests, and activities of entire populations.

The data is all aggregated and anonymous, so don’t let that last statement worry you too much. Here is how Google describes the capability:

Google Trends is a website by Google that analyzes the popularity of top search queries in Google Search across various regions and languages. The website uses graphs to compare the search volume of different queries over time.

Google takes the searches made by people and it counts them to better understand the search interests of the people doing the searching.

The charts you will see below are relative search volume comparisons. This means that the charts show the relative popularity of the search term over time. It is important to understand that the numbers you see are not counts, but comparisons over time — meaning interest and popularity of topics or search terms. Thus, trends become identifiable.

Note: you cannot compare search volume between search terms unless you place them on the same graph. Thus, the search terms in the figures presented below are not in comparison to each other, rather they are compared to themselves over time. There are no absolute comparisons made here.

Why Google Trends?

Think about it. When you have a question, want to see what is going on, or need a service; where do you go?

You go to Google. I go to Google. It is the place we use to navigate our lives and to find new information, services, resources, and news. Thus, GT is a resource to better understand the hearts and minds of the people.

I have hand-compiled a database of Google Trends data that examines and reveals major trends that have resulted from COVID-19. In a series of articles following this one, I will cover topics that have seen a major negative or positive impact from COVID-19.

I plan to cover topics like alcohol, sports, healthcare, activities of daily life, some taboo topics, emerging interests, and major changes to the activity revealed through GT.

Using Tableau, I will analyze the data and provide some interesting insights into the COVID-19 experience of the country. Through these articles, I hope I can provide some insight into the world right now, and, perhaps, on the other side of this pandemic.

If you are operating a business, start-up, doing research, or are just interested in the future, then this article series is for you. Stay tuned!

Coronavirus, Testing, and the Drivers of New Trends

To start this series, let’s take a look at the search data related directly to COVID-19.

Below, you can see Figure 1 that depicts the trends in relative search volume for the term “coronavirus.” Looking at the graph, we can see a bump in searches due to the initial news updates about the emergence of the virus in late January. It was a small degree of interest for the early watchers or early adopters of the information.

Figure 1: Google Trends Data for “coronavirus”, Robert Longyear Analysis

Around February 24th, however, we can see that the general public started to gain tremendous interest in the COVID-19 situation. From there, we see an exponential increase in interest with a peak around March 15th. This timeframe represents the beginning of the crisis and the emergence of new cases in the US — this peak is due to the growing general public awareness of the pandemic.

This peak also corresponds with the beginning of lock-downs and a general impact on the daily lives of Americans. In this case, the widespread impact can be seen through the search volumes on Google as people strive for information.

We can see that interest in “coronavirus” has declined since mid-March as people have begun to receive information through other channels or have stopped searching as they have become more informed.

Search: “SARS”

With SARS-CoV-2, the name for the virus-pathogen causing COVID-19, we have seen a renewed interest in the older SARS-virus as well. In Figure 2, you can see the search trend for SARS that mirrors the interest in the coronavirus.

Is this the same virus? SARS was scary, did it get out now? Is this increased interest in the response to SARS? Is it increased awareness of SARS that is driven by news outlets covering past-epidemics? I remember the SARS scare, this must be bad?

We cannot determine the answers to why this trend is seen from this data, but we can see that there has been an increased interest in the term “SARS” that correlates well with an interest in coronavirus.

Figure 2: Google Trends Data for “SARS”, Robert Longyear Analysis

Regardless of the cause, we can see that interest in and awareness of respiratory viruses has increased since the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China.

Search: “Do I have COVID?”

Naturally, due to the outbreak and the increased awareness of the virus, the next logical question for many people in the general public is: do I have COVID?

I have a healthcare background and I asked Google the same question to better understand the resources available for people seeking treatment or care — it is the place people go with questions.

For better or worse, Google is a common resource used to find medical information, news information, treatment locations, online doctors, and news updates related to the pandemic.

Figure 3: Google Trends Data for “do I have COVID”, Robert Longyear Analysis

We can see that there was a small delay in search volumes related to “do I have COVID” compared to “coronavirus.” When you look at the peak associated with general searches for “coronavirus”, you can see that the major peak began earlier in February, while “do I have COVID” shows a delay to around March 6–10th.

As the pandemic progressed and entered the US, the concern related to infection increased.

Now, it was less of an awareness search and more of a personal health concern.

The actual risk of individual infection increased exponentially in many communities during this period as more cases were reported, so it is likely that the perceived risk of infection also increased as it garnered media attention.

With an increase in perceived individual risk, comes a larger volume of searches related to the personal concern of infection and the symptoms associated with the disease — do I have COVID?

Search: “Testing Centers”

Similar to the “do I have COVID” searches, the search term “testing centers” is also reflective of personal health concerns. We see that the point of the exponential increase in Figure 4 is similar to “do I have COVID” search term that was delayed a bit when compared to the general interest in COVID-19.

Figure 4: Google Trends Data for “testing centers”, Robert Longyear Analysis

Stay tuned for more

The graphs above in this article may not surprise you. They are indicative of the infection trends and other similar growth curves we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as I dive into other concepts the trends get weird, cyclical, and often counterintuitive.

I compiled Google Trends data into a database that examines key search terms from January 13th through May 15th. In the next series, I will examine additional topics of interest that have resulted from the COVID-19 situation.

Article #2 will cover all things alcohol. Check it out here!

Stay tuned for more exciting charts and analysis of the COVID-19 situation.

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Robert L. Longyear III

Robert L. Longyear III

Co-Founder @ Avenue Health | VP Digital Health and Innovation @ Wanderly | Author of “Innovating for Wellness” | Healthcare Management and Policy @ GeorgetownU