• Rahul Rao

2020 thus far in Google Search Trends - Australian Edition

by Rahul Rao, Varun Rao and Yasir Aheer


Summary:

  • Google search is an interesting way to gauge the pulse of a population

  • 2020 has been a year of interesting search terms that haven’t been seen previously; coronavirus has significantly changed what people are searching for

  • Victoria, Queensland, NSW and New Zealand have all had very different responses to coronavirus - this shows up in Google search trends in these places

This has been a strange year in Australia. The period around Christmas, normally a time for barbecues, cricket and family, was spent worrying about the massive bushfires that devastated large swathes of the country. A brief lull in late January was blown away by the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped Australia, like it has most of the world.


Google search histories are an interesting source of data for two reasons. Firstly, Google is the search engine of choice for most of the world, as evidenced by its market share of 91.75%. This dominance ensures a continuous flow of high volume data through which the mood of a population can be glimpsed. Secondly, Google searches are not consciously crafted for a public audience, unlike Twitter or Facebook posts. It is hoped that under the veil of privacy people are more honest, more true to themselves. Google Trends, an aggregated list of Google searches made across the globe, is made available to the public anonymised so the veil of privacy remains intact for any individual person. When applied to populations, it can be useful in a “finger on the pulse” sense.


In this article we explore the story of 2020 thus far in our corner of the world, as told by Google Search Trends.


*A quick note about the following graphs - Google Trends data is provided with all searches normalised with the highest value set to 100. This means that the absolute numbers between two graphs are not directly comparable. All comparisons made here are to the shape of the curves and to the relative importance between two curves on the same graph.


Victoria

At the end of 2019 carrying on into early 2020, bushfires were dominating search trends. The 2019-20 bushfire season was unprecedented in intensity and devastation across the country. In Victoria, 2 people lost their lives and between 200 and 300 houses were lost. Approximately 1.2 million hectares of land was burnt.


Around the middle of January, coronavirus was still a distant threat on these shores. China had reported only 41 cases in Wuhan on January 15th. These numbers grew quickly in China and coronavirus began to spread across the globe. On January 25th, Australia recorded its first coronavirus cases - 1 in Victoria and 3 in New South Wales. Around this time, coronavirus searches rapidly overtook bushfires. They have stayed high ever since, as the virus remains an active threat in Victoria.


At the start of March Australia was in a toilet paper crisis. #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis were trending terms on social media around that time. Fights over toilet paper in supermarkets, unthinkable a few short months earlier, were not uncommon. By late March it appears the mania had died down - supply chains caught up to demand, people found they had hoarded enough, and purchase limits per customer were enforced.


#toiletpapergate was a portent of things to come. On Monday March 16th, Victoria declared a state of emergency. Lockdown was something new to us all at the time. People took to Google to find out what it meant. It took a couple of weeks for the meaning of lockdown to gain a place in our collective consciousness and to figure out some of the confusing exemptions. In an attempt to clarify the house guest limitations, Premier Daniel Andrews tweeted what will surely go down in history as one of the more colourful dictats of the lockdown season - “It doesn’t mean you can have all your mates round and get on the beers


In early March, searches for coronavirus started skyrocketing. The milestones came thick and fast - flights from South Korea were banned on March 5th, Australia confirmed its 100th case on March 10th and flights from Italy were banned on March 11th. On March 12th, the ACT - the last coronavirus-free state or territory - confirmed its first case. Cases began to double every 3 days before the closure of borders, social distancing rules and working from home applied some downward pressure on that inexorably climbing curve.


From the middle of April to the middle of June, it appeared that the spectre of coronavirus had been banished or, at least, held at bay in Victoria. Restrictions on gatherings were eased, first allowing up to 5 non-residents on a property on May 11th, and then up to 20 on May 24th. Coronavirus searches dropped; people became complacent.


In June, things took a turn for the worse. Case numbers rose again, leading to the closure of schools. Hotspots of the virus emerged in the metro north and the west. Searches for coronavirus began to pick up again. Some postcodes were placed back into lockdown in late June, sparking fears of further lockdowns. People took to Google to find out which postcodes were included, and whether another full lockdown was imminent. Shortly after, the lockdown of several tower blocks in North Melbourne on 4th July was followed by the reimposition of lockdown over the state as case numbers continue to grow.


Queensland

At first glance, Queensland exhibits the same trends as Victoria - bushfires ring in the New Year, coronavirus dominates the headlines and toilet paper shortages make an appearance in early March. On March 22nd Queensland announced a first round of lockdowns with Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk imploring residents to stay at home. Much the same as Victorians, Queenslanders were unfamiliar with lockdowns, having become accustomed to enjoying the vast expanses of the Sunshine State. Google searches for what lockdown actually meant were common in late March.


Of particular interest is the contrast between Victoria and Queensland in the time period following mid-June. While Victoria’s case numbers began to rise again, Queensland saw very few new cases. The number of searches for coronavirus stayed low and the improbability of another lockdown in the near future meant that virtually nobody was searching for what a new lockdown might look like.


New South Wales

New South Wales broadly follows the same trends as Queensland. Coronavirus searches are edging up as the number of cases slowly climbs while the state begins to open up. There are whispers of a lockdown on Google search but they remain quiet. Will they experience another lockdown? Only time and Google Trends will tell.


New Zealand

Australia’s nearest neighbour is widely recognised as having handled the coronavirus pandemic well. Searches for bushfire understandably were few and far between - New Zealand was not subject to the same terrible bushfire season as Australia. Toilet paper barely raised a murmur, although news articles from March and April note toilet paper shortages.


Their lockdown was harsher than the measures in Australia, and was rigorously enforced. They entered lockdown on 25th March - note the sudden uptick in searches for lockdown, likely for the same reasons as in Australia. Their lockdowns were gradually eased over a period of several weeks, with the rules constantly being relaxed. The extended tail in searches for lockdown is consistent with citizenry keeping abreast of changing rules. On June 8th, life was declared as being back to normal, or as near normal as can be in these troubling times. By this time searches for coronavirus were down to a murmur; as of today they show no signs of trending upwards.


Conclusion

What does the future hold? 2020 has been surprising enough thus far; predicting the course of the rest of this year appears to be a fool’s game. One thing is certain though - future generations will be able to look back at our search history and piece together our steps as we navigate our way through a once-in-a-lifetime global crisis.

Co-Authors:














Disclaimer: This article is based on our personal opinion and does not reflect or represent any organisation that we might be associated with.