Apr 27, 2020 - Health

Searching for answers in a pandemic

Data: Google; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: Google; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

A detailed new analysis of how Google searches changed since January traces Americans' real-time scramble to get ahead of the pandemic as new information surfaced — from "What is coronavirus?" to "What is Zoom?"

Why it matters: The project by Google Trends, Schema and Axios shows how searches became more specific as infections spread across the United States — documenting Americans' urgency as questions shifted from the general to practical ones about how to protect themselves and how to get tested.

  • The research pulled from more than 51,000 of the top-searched Google "what is," "what are" and "how to" queries in states across the U.S. from Jan. 20. through April 24, and analyzed the more than 22,000 that were coronavirus-related.
  • "How to make a face mask with fabric," on April 8, stands as the most widely-asked coronavirus search in any single day — appearing as a top search in 48 states.

What they're saying: This data gives an intimate look at how individuals have reacted to the uncertainty as the virus cases have risen, Schema founder Christian Marc Schmidt said.

  • "We were surprised to find distinct regional patterns over time that reflected the spread of the virus," Schmidt said.

The big picture: Coronavirus-related Google searches have surged since January, with Feb. 26 the turning point at which "coronavirus" began to surpass three typical top Google searches nationally — "Facebook," "YouTube" and "Amazon" — according to Google Trends data.

Between the lines: The search trends also signal how widely people are heeding (or at least hearing) the advice from public health officials, who early on urged Americans to wash their hands, and more recently to wear masks in public.

What they're googling: Americans across the states began searching for basic information about the virus even before it began spreading in the U.S.

  • "What is a pandemic?" and "What are the symptoms of the coronavirus?" began rising and spreading through the U.S. in January and February.
  • But the searches became more narrow, personal and actionable following states' first confirmed coronavirus case — shifting to more "how to" queries.

With the first report of a confirmed U.S. coronavirus-related death on Feb. 29, queries took on a new sense of immediacy. People sought more information about specific symptoms. They searched, "What is a dry cough" and "What is considered a fever."

  • After LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics launched coronavirus tests for commercial use on March 5, searches for "How to get tested" for coronavirus started to surge in a handful of states, then spread to others.
  • As states issued shelter-in-place orders, questions about the government's response to coronavirus and the economic impact began to rise.
  • The New York Times reported on the hand sanitizer shortage on March 11. A week later, "How to make hand sanitizer" was a top search in 46 states.
  • "What is a national emergency," Americans began googling in the days after President Trump proclaimed one on March 13.
  • "What is martial law?" became a top search in 43 states on March 22nd.

Searches about working and socializing from home began to rise in late March, with questions like, "How to group Facetime?" and "What is remote learning?"

As the economy reeled, and the White House and Congress focused on relief for individuals and businesses, top searches in states turned to: "What is a bear market?" "What is a recession?" "What is a payroll tax cut?"

  • In recent weeks, Americans have pummeled Google with questions about how to make masks, how to apply for unemployment and how to get their stimulus check.

Go deeper... Searching Covid-19: Seeking answers in a time of uncertainty

Methodology: Of a total of 51,680 top daily "what is," "what are," and "how to" Google searches by state that were pulled for the project, 22,072 were COVID-19 related. Identical top COVID-19 searches in different states were then consolidated by date, creating 4,278 daily unique queries.

  • These were manually categorized into “how to” or “what is/are” questions. They were further divided into six categories based on how the queries related to coronavirus.
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