April 03, 2020

How I Used Google Trends to Chill Out for a Second

No one I know has lived through a pandemic before. Not in this way, in digitally bonded communities, with pixelated spectres of our friends and colleagues. Even in writing this, the right tone is hard to find. How does anyone strike the right balance between being insightful and being candid about the uncertainty that everyone feels? Everything I do, from the jokes I make on Twitter to silly cat photos I send people, has an undercurrent of fear.

There’s no The Wirecutter review for “Best Way to Survive a Pandemic” (I mean, they’re trying), and there’s no Zoom face filter for hiding tears on a status call. I’ve tried my best to use my privilege—computer-knowledge, internet and social listening skills—to find tools that can somehow soothe.

Weeks of research have led me to only one conclusively uplifting thing: Google Trends. 

My original intention, truth be told, was to find points of certainty in people’s online interests. I was sure people were going to be Googling sweatpants and loungewear at higher rates.

Google Trends graph of the last 12 showing increased interest over time for terms "sweatpants" and "pajamas," with peaks during December 2019 holiday season.

I was very wrong. Looks like everyone has a stockpile from the holidays, or is wearing real pants to Zoom meetings. But I started to think about how people are using search engines to cope with the uncertainty in this climate.

I first looked into food banks, because I was researching how to donate locally. (The answer is here.)

Google Trends graph of the past 12 months showing marked interest in "food bank" search in November, and even higher interest in March.

There’s a massive spike outdoing the standard Thanksgiving donation drive. The interest is probably two-fold, from folks looking to donate and folks looking to access their food bank after losing their livelihoods or other resources. That’s not a totally scientific guess, so I dug deeper into these numbers and found the top related “Food Bank” topics in the past 30 days:

A list of the top five related topics to "food bank." In order from highest ranking to lower, they are "food," "bank," "food bank," "volunteering" and "donation."

“Volunteering” and “Donation” both rank in there, meaning there IS a notable chunk of interest and ability to support people in need.

I wanted to see how this communal support extends more broadly. It’s not often that Americans think beyond individualism, as noted by how much more often people ask “Will I be ok?” (in red) instead of “Will we be ok?” (in blue). It makes a ton of sense beyond individualism, since we tend to only know our needs and not others’.

Google Trends graph showing the past 90 days of interest in the terms "Will we be ok" and "Will I be ok"

But on March 17th, for one day, worrying about our collective welfare surpassed the standard self-preservation instinct.

Nothing in the past year has quite brought the Trend data for these questions together like mid-March.

Frankly, nothing can guarantee that they’ll get that close again. Maybe we’ve moved beyond asking if anything will be ok, and Google Trends doesn’t show how our questions will evolve.

I don’t have any advice on how to prepare for the future, but what we do in the present should require us to be thoughtful about our collective needs and how we can best support each other.

I’m also, personally, moved by this particular spike in interest—and not just because I love this song.

It’s my way of asking you to call someone, anyone you love, and kiss them through the phone.

-Angely Guevara

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