How search terms trended in the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic

When the Covid-19 outbreak emerged in Wuhan in December 2019 and spread rapidly throughout the world, a great amount uncertainty, confusion and fear accompanied the spread of the virus.

Seeking information on a variety of questions related to the public health crisis, people naturally turned to Google for answers. In this article, we will explore how search data related to the Covid-19 pandemic evolved over time using data from Google Trends, focusing particularly on search trends in the UK.

From 'what is? to 'how to?

Interest in the coronavirus naturally followed the initial outbreak in Wuhan at the end of 2019, but search volume was actually relatively low from December through to late February. It was only in March that searches for 'Coronavirus' intensified, peaking in the week 15 to 21 March, which preceded Boris Johnson's 'stay at home' address to the nation on 23 March.

In the graph below we can see how interest in 'Coronavirus' dominated search queries in the UK throughout this period.

As interest in the virus grew from February into March, search queries were often framed as 'what is' or 'what are' questions, such as "what is coronavirus?", or "what are the symptoms of coronavirus?".

In time, these 'what is/are' questions were accompanied by 'how to' questions, as people sought solutions to problems that didn't exist previously, such "how to make hand sanitiser", and later, "how to make a face mask".

Lockdown search trends

From 23 March the UK entered national lockdown. In this period of unprecedented disruption to people's daily lives, schools, pubs, restaurants, leisure destinations and many workplaces closed their doors to help stop the spread of the virus.

Trending search terms in this period show a nation adjusting to a new way of living. Parents became teachers, and in turn used Google to search for information on home schooling, with a little help from lockdown hero Joe Wicks, who ran a series of online PE lessons to help keep kids active.

Being separated from family and friends for an extended period of time was one of the biggest challenges of lockdown for many people. This led to a rise in searches for online quizzes, as people sought ways to socialise remotely, while video conferencing software saw a huge spike in popularity.

Economic search trends

National lockdown in the UK naturally came at great economic cost, as many businesses were forced to close their doors, and high streets became deserted. This economic uncertainty is reflected in the search queries made from March onwards, with people seeking information on government schemes such as furlough, as well as unemployment support and mortgage holidays.

Post lockdown trends

As the UK emerged from lockdown in late June, it became clear that the disruption to our daily lives would continue for some time to come.  The government introduced new rules and guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of the virus while encouraging economic recovery, coining new phrases and slogans in the process.

While the spring/summer lockdown helped to slow the spread of the virus in the UK, it did not eradicate it. With experts suggesting that a vaccine would not arrive until 2021 at the earliest, it left the UK vulnerable to rising infections and deaths once life returned to (something resembling) normal. In this period, people searched for information on topics such as the rate of infection, and, of course, the prospect of a second national lockdown.

At the time of writing, the UK has just entered its second period of national lockdown, lasting from 5 November to 2 December. Covid-19 cases in the UK exceed 1.41 million, while there have been over 52,000 deaths attributed to the virus. While there is renewed optimism that an effective vaccine is just around the corner, in the meantime, our day-to-day lives have changed considerably. We have learned to adjust ourselves collectively to the 'new normal', with many of us working remotely, socialising from a safe distance, sanitising our hands, and wearing a face mask when entering a shop. The Google Trends data for the period from March 2020 onwards reflects a fascinating and tumultuous period in our recent history, a period where accurate information has been in high demand, and where people have turned to Google for clarity, guidance and reassurance.

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