I recently discovered that Google Trends is a thing. Specifically, that they aggregate their search data and make it publicly available. Which is awesome. People Google much more honestly than they interact with others in person, more honestly than they answer surveys, and more honestly than they behave in a world where politics is important. So what people Google is insight into what people are curious about, where online outreach can have the most potential impact, and what is on the top of people’s brains at particular times. It tells us something about regionalisms, and seasonality of thought. I encourage everyone to play around with their data, for work or for play.
Here’s a couple of examples of things you can learn. Let’s start with the basics. Which states, over the last 12 months, have searched for “ocean” the most?
Why are Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Rhode Island the top 5? My guess is that people are planning their summer vacations, because related searches include some of the top tourist destinations in each state. As always with social media, “Frank Ocean” is included in ocean searches. So maybe there’s a hotspot of Frank Ocean fans in Mississippi?
How about general interest in big ocean problems? Take, for example, worldwide Googles about the topic of overfishing over the last 5 years?
I don’t know why, but I was slightly surprised by the pattern here. Concern over overfishing has remained relatively stable despite fish stocks themselves not faring so well (worldwide) and various efforts at communicating the status of overfishing. Instead, you’ll notice a fairly seasonal pattern where people around the winter holidays aren’t searching about the status of their foodstuffs, and peaks in the summer where perhaps more people are contemplating a seasonal fish dinner.
Now let’s think about a more regional issue: vibrio disease. The two main forms in the US are Vibrio parahaemolyticus – the type that will give you food poisoning – and Vibrio vulnificus – the kind known in local headlines as “flesh-eating”.
What’s interesting here is that despite the fact that many more people are sickened by parahaemolyticus each year, the bulk of the Google searches are for vulnificus. This supports a long-held theory of mine of the role the media plays in people’s perception of risk associated with these diseases. While the actual risk lies with the one not worth reporting, the concern lies with the one known for its gross headline imagery. According to a Vibrio researcher, the spikes in searches for vulnificus come following cases reported to the CDC, and likely the related news about them.
The search patterns for parahaemolyticus, though, are still interesting and shed some light on shipping patterns of the popular raw oyster.
The coastal states make sense – local seafood. But check out Iowa and Nebraska; makes you wonder where they’re getting their oysters from and how they’re transported. Similarly, Gulf of Mexico oysters historically have a reputation for causing illness, but people aren’t concerned enough about it there to Google it. Maybe they just all stay safe and eat their oysters on the grill, or maybe people realize the reputation is not necessarily true.
These are just three examples of what this type of Google data can tell us. Interpreting what these results exactly mean require a certain finesse – they reflect what people are curious about, a level of interest – not a state of what it is they’re Googling. But it’s a safe bet that people are more honest about their curiosity in the privacy of their own phones and computers than in person, so it’s a great source of data about sensitive topics. I encourage you to explore those on your own. Happy Googling!