What Google searches tell us about interest in the COVID-19 vaccine

Giving policymakers insights on the public reaction to regulatory milestones

Photo by Nathana Rebouças on Unsplash

Why look at Google Trends?

Google search interest for “bars and restaurants nearby” across all states measured by Relative Search Value (RSV) during March/April 2020.
Google search interest for “bars and restaurants nearby” across all states measured by Relative Search Value (RSV) during March/April 2020.

Google searches provide a window to explore COVID-19 vaccine information seeking

  • ‘Access’ indicator — searches related to availability, timing, and proximity of COVID-19 vaccines
  • ‘General’ indicator — searches related to general information, news/updates, vaccine safety, schedules and timelines.
  • ‘Risks’ indicator — searches related to potential risks and harm if the vaccine is taken.
COVID19 vaccine search framework visual allowing us to calculate a global percent of all Google searches that comprise one of our three sentinel signals: general, access, and risks.

Finding 1: After overall COVID-19 interest dropped in August, COVID-19 vaccine-specific interest rose after the first Emergency Use Authorization.

Line graph showing how google searches for COVID19 and COVID19 vaccines changed in the pandemic’s first year.
Line graph showing how key regulatroy announcements affected Google vaccine search interest

Finding 2: The rise in vaccine-specific searches was driven by ‘Access’ searches — suggesting people’s strong interest in getting the vaccine after the EUA.

Line graph showing how the national rise in vaccine-specific searches was driven by access searches

Finding 3: Northeastern states searched for vaccine access at higher rates than other regions.

Bar charts showing regional average of COVID19 search interest indicator as percent of all Google seraches.
*To get a percent difference, the regional rate of search for Northeast region was compared to the average of the three other regions — South, West, and Midwest.

People were eager to access the vaccine, as measured by their Google searches

What we learned in this post about Google Trends for vaccines:

  • You can use Google Trends to track and monitor the dynamics of specific broad topics around big events within the epidemic/pandemic e.g. vaccines as part of a broader strategy to monitor changes in vaccine interest
  • You can use the handpicked sentinel indicators to describe, track, and measure vaccine information-seeking e.g. ‘Access’, ‘General’, and ‘Risks’. These are easy to develop and explain, and they are more stable over time, unlike automatically assigned indicators e.g. PCA components.
  • Google Trends is not necessarily the right platform to track some niche topics, e.g. vaccine hesitancy. It is likely that vaccine skeptics are searching for, and receiving, misinformation via social media and private sharing, rather than through search engines like Google.
  • Regional variations within this indicator framework are an opportunity to link search interest to potentially meaningful structural/systemic and public health factors
  • To do robust analysis on Trends, it greatly helps to have access to the private research API. This gives you an actual percentage of searches for a term, rather than a score normalized between 0 and 100 as you get on the public Trends website.

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