What Google searches tell us about our coronavirus thoughts and fears

A woman in protective mask and gloves stands in a market tent and looks at her phone.

People are relying on Google to allay their coronavirus concerns and to keep them entertained in quarantine. | Jenny Matthews/In Pictures via Getty Images

Google’s data editor Simon Rogers discusses what’s been trending during the coronavirus pandemic.

Life during the coronavirus pandemic is full of questions.

And for many of those questions, people are turning to the internet and, by extension, to Google. Google is by far the world’s dominant search engine, fielding about 90 percent of the world’s online queries. So Google has more insight into our internet searches than any other company.

Fortunately for the data nerds among us, the company makes those search trends readily available with a website called Google Trends. This tool lets people compare how popular one search is over time or compared with another, offering insight into what people are curious about. That’s particularly helpful with the coronavirus, which has consistently dominated search queries in the past few months — even beyond more quotidian standbys like weather, music, and video.

We spoke with Simon Rogers, data editor at Google, who has been putting out a fascinating daily newsletter and coronavirus page from Google Trends data about different trending searches and what they might mean.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Rani Molla

For those who aren’t familiar, can you explain what Google Trends is?

Simon Rogers

Google Trends is basically a public tool that anybody can use. It takes a sample of all search — there are billions of searches every day, so it couldn’t possibly measure every one — and basically all of those searches go through this process where we try and work out what they’re really about, which topics they’re about. And then what we do is try and make that data easier for people to access.

So around something like coronavirus, say, that’ll be where we would look at the top questions that somebody will be asking about the virus. Google Trends is, I would say, the world’s largest free-access, journalistic data set. And it’s ever-changing, and every day it gives you a sense of what people really care about.

Rani Molla

What advantage does Google Trends have over other datasets?

Simon Rogers

There’s ubiquity in search. It takes you beyond that echo chamber of social media. Because you’re not presenting yourself in a certain way, you’re being honest. You’re never as honest as you are with your search engine. You get a sense of what people genuinely care about and genuinely want to know — and not just how they’re presenting themselves to the rest of the world. And it’s immediate. As soon as something happens, it shows up in search.

Rani Molla

I’ve been paying attention to Google Trends a lot more during coronavirus. That’s because, as we’re spending more time at home and computers mediate our lives with the outside world even more, it seems like we’re getting a better window into what people’s thoughts and questions and fears are during the pandemic. Do you think that’s the case?

Simon Rogers

I think partly it’s because suddenly you’ve got this giant shared experience, something we’re all going through, and it’s very easy in that environment to feel isolated. What’s happened to you isn’t happening to anybody else. But you can get a real sense of how that’s reflected in the way that we search. Looking at the searches, right now, I think they almost split into two different categories.

On one side, there are people searching for the big issues around the virus: “Is there a vaccine yet?” or “Why does one drug work?” or “What are the symptoms?” — those kinds of big questions. And then the other side is the fallout from the virus, which are searches around things like loneliness and big emotional issues. And then there are also things like: “How do I cut my own hair?” or “How do I bake bread?” or “How do I keep the kids entertained?” — things we’re all going through.

Rani Molla

Those latter trends have been some of the most interesting to me. I saw the bread, obviously, banana bread — I figure people are just buying way too many bananas and have to figure out how to deal with it — how to cut your own hair. One of the things that really blew me away was that all of a sudden everyone and their mother was Googling “how to make coffee” and must have never had to figure that out before. What do you make of that?

Simon Rogers

It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s all those things that we do during the day, not at home often. I think it’s partly because people want to expand their knowledge of something. So probably people know how to make instant coffee by now, right? But people will search for how to make Dalgona coffee, which is this kind of whipped thing with sugar in it that my daughter’s been doing tons of in the last five weeks. It’s things like that which are out of the ordinary, so they’re not necessarily things you would do if you didn’t have time at home and you weren’t thinking of how to just change things up a little bit.

Rani Molla

What are some of the more surprising searches you’ve seen trending?

Simon Rogers

The fact that there were things I’ve been thinking of personally — to see them show up in search is always interesting. Like we have a 3D printer, and I was thinking, I wonder if other people search for how to 3D print face masks to donate to hospitals, which is a very specific thing. Searches for 3D printing are higher than ever before in history. And there’s some things which are kind of reassuring, like searches for how to help, food donation, helping the community, how to volunteer — all of those things are higher than ever before.

It’s good to think that we’re thinking of others at this moment. But there’s big spikes in searches around very specific DIY that goes across both search data and YouTube data. And there’s a lot of big spikes in search for things that are homemade, weird stuff that I wouldn’t even think about, like homemade eyebrow wax, that makes sense but also scares me a little bit.

Rani Molla

I could use some homemade eyebrow wax right about now.

Simon Rogers

Ha! Then, there’s more the how-to thing, like how to make a face mask at home or how to ripen avocados, how to divide fractions. We saw searches for “shredded” were spiking and we thought, “Oh, this is people talking about weightlifting or bodybuilding,” and actually it’s people searching for shredded chicken.

Rani Molla

What about the weirdest search?

Simon Rogers

There’s things that would have seemed weird like six weeks ago that don’t seem weird now. “Drive-by birthday party” spiked 5,000 percent, and that’s not something I or anybody had ever heard of before six weeks ago. And if you’d asked me this in March, I’d say well, this is a weird thing, but now it just feels normal.

Rani Molla

It’s the new normal. What about concerning Google searches? For example, this morning I saw that one of the highest-trending US coronavirus questions was, “Who created coronavirus?” which is this conspiracy theory that keeps popping up and has no basis in fact.

Simon Rogers

There are things that are concerning for society like the spike in searches for “loneliness,” people searching for “having trouble sleeping,” “depression.” All of those things are concerning to me, and I worry for people that don’t have people with them or are feeling it. Then the other misinformation thing is really interesting, because normally around any political thing, you always see spikes and searches where people are trying to find out if a misinfo story is true.

But now, I do get the sense that the highest spikes are things around searches for reliable information, like people searching for cdc.gov or wherever are really high at the moment. So I wonder whether that’s because we’re looking for things we know are true. Occasionally, misinfo things do show up. But if you have politicians saying, “Coronavirus was created somewhere,” then people are going to search for that. And that’s just a side effect of where we are right now. I think the fact that people are looking for it is actually a good thing because it means we want to know if it’s true or not. They’re not necessarily just going to accept it.

Rani Molla

Is there any real-world stuff that you could do with Google Trends, especially as it relates to public health. Like, could you see where there are new coronavirus hot spots or something like that?

Simon Rogers

The country-level datasets, which we update every day, shows the top 100 places searching for coronavirus as well as the top related queries, which are what people type in when they search for the virus. Governments have noticed different stages for different things that are popping up in search and then change their official information to reflect that. I think we’re really at the beginning of how useful this is.

One of the things we’ve been thinking about are these kind of patterns of search around the virus. What you see is when people don’t really have many cases, lots of searches are very informational like, “What is coronavirus?” And then when cases start happening then there are things like, “What are the symptoms of coronavirus?” And then it gets to more sophisticated questions when you’re living in lockdown.

Like in New York, for instance, you’ll see questions around things like, “How long does coronavirus live on surfaces?” or “When’s the lockdown going to end?” or “How do I get my stimulus check?” So you can really see how things change over time. I think you could probably build a really interesting model around that. This is a real-time reaction to the situation around people.

Rani Molla

Are there any regional or country-specific differences in coronavirus that have stuck out to you?

Simon Rogers

There are some differences. For instance, in France right now they have these zones of infection, so people search for the “red zone,” and before that was people searching for a pass to leave Paris and things like that. You see these kinds of country differences, but really the way that the search evolves is common across countries.

So if you were to look at the searches in, say, Milan seven weeks ago, they are very similar to searches we’re seeing in New York now. It’s almost like the big questions are common across all of us. We’re all trying to find the same things. It comes out of the uncertainty of knowing there isn’t a cure, there isn’t a vaccine right now. That uncertainty leads to a lot of similar questions in different places.

Rani Molla

What don’t we see in Google Trends data?

Simon Rogers

We can’t tell demographics. I don’t know who somebody is. The data is anonymized so you don’t get individual data. So, I can’t tell you how different age groups search or anything like that. Also, unless you’re extrapolating something from the data, what you can tell is what people care about, but you can’t tell what their opinions are about it.

Rani Molla

What should people not be Googling?

Simon Rogers

I wouldn’t tell anybody not to Google anything, because that’s such a personal thing. I think people need to think about information with the same care they think about any aspect of their lives. If you’re consuming information, you want it to be reliable. Just thinking of information as this valuable resource that matters is really important.

I think I’d rather have people Googling everything, searching for everything, rather than accepting something without searching for it. I’d much rather you looked up stuff yourself than just believe things on face value, wherever they’re coming from.


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