1st of April 2020 11 Minutes read
Consumer search behavior during the Coronavirus crisis
Using search data to understand how consumer behavior has changed
Apart from the tragic loss of lives and the overall impact on health systems all over the world, the current pandemic is bound to have an influence on the global economy, too. Some business sectors like those connected to transportation, tourism, restaurants and hospitality or event planning, will need government support in order not to disappear completely. And most countries are already taking measures in that direction.
On the other hand, those enterprises that can adapt and offer their services online, or delivery-based, may have even seen a positive impact in the past few weeks.
With so much of the world population being blocked inside their homes, people are using the only way they have left for reaching out to others: the internet. So much so that network providers have been dealing with infrastructure capacity problems in some areas. They are urging big players like Youtube and Netflix to reduce streaming quality in order not to “break the internet”.
But while, overall, there is more internet activity, the way it is distributed has definitely changed. In other words, people are not searching for the same things as they would usually. Therefore, if you own a website, depending on its topic, you may have seen drastic changes in the traffic you are getting from search engines, as well as in your overall number of visitors.
If you look at the global and local search trends, you should get a clearer picture of why and how this is happening. For one thing, the subject of the virus has been on people’s minds a great deal, at the cost of (online) interest towards other subjects.
And Google Trends can tell us the story of these changes, showing which search queries and topics have been the most popular in a given time-frame.
Using search data to map Coronavirus effects
Based on Google search data, on a global level, the coronavirus is still by far the most trending subject worldwide. To understand the scale of it, here is a graph of the search trend compared to 3 of the top searches under normal circumstances: “youtube”, “facebook”, “weather”. The 3 of them put together might challenge the “coronavirus” keyword trend, but separately, none of them comes close.
On the other hand, the graph for the virus is going down. Either we are approaching a de-escalation of the pandemic, or just the interest in the topic is seeing a natural decrease, due to oversaturation. After March 22, the topic of the virus has been constantly decreasing in interest globally, while still being one of the top subjects on the agenda.
The pattern may vary, depending on the country, but for the past three months, these are the countries that have shown the most public interest in the topic of the virus. Please note that the score of 0 to 100 is given based on the relative web search interest in that area. It’s not absolute search term data that is being compared country to country.
It’s also interesting to notice that search interest and actual number of Coronavirus cases and fatalities are not perfectly correlated. Unsurprisingly, Italy and Spain are leading the way in terms of trends, as they are some of the hardest hit by the virus.
But countries like South Africa, Peru, Argentina, Poland or Hungary have relatively high search trends for Coronavirus. Yet, at the same time, they have some of the lowest numbers of confirmed cases per number of inhabitants. At the other end, Belgium and Austria have a relatively high incidence of cases, while having less than average trends towards virus-related searches.
Why is this relevant? Because it may suggest the different patterns of collective thinking across countries. These patterns are likely to have an effect on consumer behavior even in cases where the impact of the actual virus is less severe.
Most of the COVID-19 related searches are either news related, with people looking for updates on the number of cases and fatalities, or symptoms related.
Current search trends per business sectors
Trending keywords and topics can tell a story of what people search on Google today and which business sectors are likely to suffer or benefit. If you are seeing changes in your usual traffic, it might also be because of these general trends for the business sector you are in. But there may be solutions even for some of the worst hit sectors.
Arts, entertainment & events
An area with dropping stats is the “events & listings” sector. While many events have successfully moved online, some just had to be cancelled. For those entrepreneurs that activate in this area and don’t need face-to-face contact, there are a number of tools that can help.
Staying with “arts & entertainment”, streaming services have seen a rise in popularity, with Netflix leading the way as a keyword in the “movies” category. There have also been movie theaters that have managed to temporarily switch to streaming the current movie releases, instead of playing them in theaters.
Autos & vehicles
It looks like people will not be rushing to buy cars anytime soon. Car dealerships may be closed anyway. There has been a drop of up to 25% in the interest towards all vehicle-related topics. Yet, one subdomain here that has been actually going up is bicycle and accessories. Part of the searches do actually refer to “static” bikes for home use.
Beauty & fitness
With some exceptions like fashion, this domain has seen increased interest. Especially if we look at the fitness-related search trend, with top search terms like “yoga”, “fitness” or “workout”. Many have used the current context to workout in and around the house. Gyms may be closed, but their owners could still try to minimize the impact by doing online fitness training and classes with their customers. Unfortunately, hair and cosmetics are seeing a decline on search trends, and the solutions for these services are limited right now.
Books & literature
It’s not a bad time for e-books and audiobooks, which have gone up in trends searches by around 20%. Classic bookshops face a new challenge. Including an e-book branch in their business should now be a solution to consider, if it hasn’t happened yet.
Computers & electronics
If we limit our research to Google trends data, it would seem that this domain has been one of the least affected by the pandemic. Search interest is within the normal fluctuations worldwide.
The current situation has led to volatility in stock markets. Especially between March 9 and March 19, we have witnessed a huge spike in search trends related especially to “stock” and “gold”. Since then, both the US government and the EU have announced substantial financial support for businesses. As a result, things seem to have calmed down. We can also see it in the popular searches data.
Food & drinks
Restaurants are some of the worst hit businesses. Usually one of the keywords with the highest search volumes is a local search: “restaurant(s) near me”. Notice on the graph how, understandably, this search has lost popularity.
On the other hand, searches like “restaurant delivery” have been going up. Hopefully, owners managed to keep business running by switching to making their own deliveries. Alternatively, they could use the services of a third party delivery service.
Also in this category, there has been a 20-25% spike in interest for cooking&recipes. But, unsurprisingly, the biggest growth has been for searches related to grocery and food retailers. Many countries have seen the population flock to supermarkets to make provisions for the upcoming lockdowns. Actual search queries like “lidl”, “aldi” and “carrefour” are in the top 5 in this domain.
Predictably, this is another area with increased popularity. Board games, for one, have been quite popular in March. Small businesses that are able to deliver them would have seen a growth in website traffic and in revenue.
Perhaps surprisingly, there has not been a lot of change in this sector, with one notable exception: medical devices and equipment. Obviously, this has to do with the increased relevance of queries like “mask”, “mask n95” or “n95”. Unfortunately, many countries have had to fight against speculators trying to sell such overpriced products.
Other than that, it is almost business as usual in terms of search trends.
Hobbies & Leisure
It will be hard times for many companies in this domain. Bowling, for instance, has seen a drop of more than 50% in search interest. There is similar data for clubs & nightlife. We can only hope that once the crisis is gone, people will try to make up for the lost time by making the most of their hobbies and leisure activities.
Pets & animals
Not majorly affected by the crisis so far. In most countries, pet shops have been allowed to stay open, to attend to the immediate needs of the owners: pet food and other resources. In terms of search, it has been stable.
When there is uncertainty about the future, the real estate sector suffers. Big, long term investments in housing are likely postponed by most. Not much can be done in this respect, but real estate agents could have an option to create virtual tours of properties for sale, instead of the usual ones. There is a clear drop in interest right now and we’re afraid that it may take longer to recover than other sectors.
Due to the high presence of e-commerce, shopping has not suffered drawbacks, for the most part. Only searches related to “luxury items” and “tickets to events” show a significant decrease. So, if you are selling jewelry, you may have noticed a drop in traffic. Other than that, online toy stores, as well as wholesalers should have seen an increase in their website traffic. Costco has had a huge spike at the beginning of March, in terms of searches related to their brand. Other shopping portals should be within normal activity.
Sports & Travel
These are the last ones on our list in alphabetical order. As it happens, they provide some of the most troubling data, which is why we placed them together.
All searches related to sports, either amateur or professional, are at an all-time low, as the great majority of sports events have been cancelled, including the Olympics, Euro 2020, the NBA, Roland Garros, Premier League etc. This also comes at a great loss of interest for sports news websites, betting websites and many other connected domains.
The financial losses are, no doubt, huge. Obviously, those with related websites will have seen big drops in traffic. Some of them are trying to keep their audience involved by doing recaps of past events, while waiting for sports seasons to restart. At the same time, virtual sports events have begun selling tickets online. You can now watch your favorite soccer/football teams face off in FIFA 20 console games. It’s a small consolation, but die-hard fans will surely be interested in such events.
With travel, Google Trends shows a worrying picture of the situation, and, if you go in more depth, it gets worse. Searches related to “air travel”, “car rental & taxi services”, “cruises”, “travel agencies & services” have all nosedived. Hotel & accommodation searches are doing slightly better than these, but the entire picture is pessimistic. Website owners will have also seen this in their traffic stats.
Even if search data were to improve, this is another domain that can’t be replaced with virtual solutions or delivery services. So for these, we await government support and hope at least that summer vacations in the Northern Hemisphere can still happen almost as planned, provided that by then the coronavirus will have been kept under control.
To all the businesses and entrepreneurs out there, especially the small ones from the most affected domains, we are rooting for you. After the storm passes, things will not only get back to normal, but those who have held their ground will have a good context to recover and to grow. In the meantime, keep an eye on your stats and try to make sense of the general online trends. This information may prove essential for many businesses.
If you are a website owner and you need more specific data, there is a lot of information that can be retrieved from https://trends.google.com/trends/. You may even be able to see what the search trends are at the level of your region, county or city, as well as in your business sector. So we recommend that you try the tool for yourself. Meanwhile, if we have missed some domains you would be interested in, feel free to comment on this post.