How Google Trends can help us plan and respond better to future pandemics

Investigating how Americans responded to the socioeconomic uncertainties of COVID-19

A person conducts a Google search on a laptop
Photo by Benjamin Dada on Unsplash

What we found:

  1. High demand for information was driven by increasing searches for COVID-19 from multiple news outlets, regardless of the ideological leaning of the news source
  2. Changes in information seeking around major concerns like masks and social distancing often happened well in advance of action by the federal government
  3. Actual unemployment claims were highly correlated with the previous week’s Google searches for unemployment
  4. Alongside the increase in searches for information on COVID-19 care, there was a decrease in searches for other health behaviors (urgent care, doctor’s appointments, health insurance/Medicare/Medicaid)
  5. Search terms were more popular in some regions than in others, suggesting that concerns vary across the country.
  6. States most vulnerable economically or in terms of the social safety net (such as Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky) had fewer searches for information on both COVID-19 news and and interventions like social distancing

Google searches capture the health, economic, and social impact of, and response to, COVID-19

  • How has information seeking changed over time?
  • How does information seeking vary between regions and states?
  • Do states have particular and distinct patterns in information seeking?
  • Does search data correlate with — and even precede — real-life events?

Finding 1: High demand for information as searches for COVID-19 news spiked, regardless of the ideological leaning of the news source.

Comparison of Google Trends nonpharmaceutical intervention-related queries and actual government and public health nonpharmaceutical interventions between March 1 and April 15, 2020
Fig 1: National trends for Google Trends nonpharmaceutical intervention–related queries compared to actual government and public health nonpharmaceutical interventions at the US federal level between March 1 and April 15, 2020. CDC: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; EU: European Union; SD: social distancing; WHO: World Health Organization.

Finding 2: Changes in information seeking on major concerns often happened well in advance of action by the federal government.

Finding 3: Actual unemployment claims were highly correlated with the previous week’s Google searches for unemployment.

Trend lines of actual unemployment claims compared to Google searches for unemployment applications.
Fig 2. Trend line for Google searches for unemployment applications and actual initial weekly unemployment claims normalized from 0–100 over time (with seasonal adjustment).

Finding 4: While searches for COVID-19 ‘care’ spiked, searches for other health behaviors dropped.

Bar chart showing the change in monthly average relative searches for health concerns from the beginning of January and the end of March, 2020.
Fig 3: Bar chart showing the change in monthly average relative searches for health concerns from the beginning of January and the end of March, 2020.

Finding 5: Search terms were more popular in some regions than in others, suggesting that concerns vary across the country.

Google search comparing one salient query from each search category during March/April, 2020.
Fig4. Google search interest across all states for one salient query in each category, measured by Relative Search Value (RSV) during March/April 2020.

Finding 6: States most vulnerable economically or in terms of the social safety net had fewer searches for information on both COVID-19 news and social distancing.

Scatterplot of search terms clustered into regional personas, with arrow directions correlated with the x and y-axis, explaining the variation in data.
Fig 5: Scatterplot of state principal component analysis loadings and scores for the first two components, with the top queries shown as arrow vectors. Each arrow represents the relative weight of each query, and the direction indicates the points to the states that most exhibit this search pattern. The arrow direction measures correlation; arrows in the same direction are highly positively correlated, while divergent arrows in opposite directions are highly negatively correlated. Component 1 (x-axis) and Component 2 (y-axis) explain 25% and 18% of the variation in the data, respectively.

How can public health authorities use these Google Trends insights?

  1. People of all political persuasions were hungry for COVID-19 information early in the pandemic, so it’s incumbent on policymakers and public health officials to align critical public health information across a diverse range of news sources for correct and consistent messaging.
  2. Tracking the topics people are seeking information about can help authorities understand their concerns, and also what interventions they are aware of and might be ready to accept — often earlier than the government might anticipate.
  3. In a future health and even economic crises, spikes in searches for information on unemployment benefits could be used as a sentinel to alert the government about coming surges in claims.
  4. Noticing declines in searches for information about other diseases could warn health authorities to encourage people to continue to seek care, especially in areas with serious underlying health risks.
  5. Regional variations in interest in COVID-19 and social distancing could help prioritize information and resources to states that are most interested in economic and social support. For example, the government can ramp up social distance awareness campaigns and increase the amount of stimulus checks in these states.

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