How Has Online Search Behavior In North Carolina Changed During COVID-19?

Tom Dempster

Tom Dempster

It’s been the inescapable global news story of 2020 so far. COVID-19 has resulted in temporary changes to almost every aspect of our lives. Millions of Americans now find themselves out of work, and thousands have sadly succumbed to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, schools are closed, employees have been forced to work from home, and public gatherings have given way to social distancing. 

In this article, we’ll look at Google Trends data to see how the coronavirus has affected search trends across North Carolina. We looked at data for 2020 to date, and reviewed how the popularity of search terms and topics has changed in recent months.

How COVID-19 has dominated media coverage

The coronavirus has dominated national and local media coverage since early March. There is no truer illustration of this than the below graph from Google Trends, which shows the extent to which interest in the coronavirus has dwarfed usual topics like weather and news to become virtually the only story in town for most of 2020.

coronavirus google trends

The graph also demonstrates another point – the significant changes we have seen in the physical world around us have also had consequences for the online world. As individuals search for solutions to the problems posed by coronavirus, the search terms they are using have changed. In the early weeks of 2020, who could have predicted there would be a shortage of hand sanitizer and toilet paper by March? Who could have forecast the need for stimulus checks from the IRS?

The long-term impact of this is uncertain. As individuals, although we may hesitate before shaking hands and consider the benefits of wearing a mask in public, the online behavioral changes may only be temporary. As the specter of coronavirus begins to fade, it seems likely that many people will return to their hobbies and interests when they are able to safely do so. 

The economic impact of coronavirus has also forced businesses to adapt, and it’s interesting to consider whether some of these changes may have greater impact in the long-term. Video conferencing companies like Zoom have thrived. Brick and mortar retailers scrambled to ensure their online stores were able to offset some of the losses from physical store closures. Restaurants, coffee shops and bars have invested in delivery options or curbside pickup for the first time. 

These changes could have far-reaching consequences for businesses. Unfortunately, some will not be able to survive this pandemic. Others may learn lessons and spot inefficiencies that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The potential is there for large changes in how businesses operate – long after the coronavirus has run its course.

Measuring the effect on individuals in North Carolina

On March 13, President Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency. This coincides with a huge shift in search patterns across the state of North Carolina.

Looking from mid-March to the end of May, the search term ‘coronavirus’ is far and away the most popular search term in the state. But digging deeper into the search trends, how have individuals responded to the crisis? What specific information are they seeking online?

Google Trends provides data on the 25 ‘rising’ search term trends in the state of North Carolina, and provides a percentage increase for each search term. These search terms have all seen large increases in search traffic for the specified period. In this case, we looked at the breakout terms between March 13 and June 3.

There are six ‘breakout’ search terms – meaning these phrases have seen a 5000% (or greater) increase in searches compared with the previous time period (see here for more information on “Breakout” terms in Google Trends).

  1. stimulus check
  2. popular google doodle games
  3. thank you coronavirus helpers
  4. coronavirus tips
  5. stimulus checks
  6. get my payment

These ‘breakout’ terms can be broken into three categories:

Numbers 1, 5 and 6 on this list are related to the federal government’s stimulus check payment, which provided up to $1,200 to eligible individuals in the United States. ‘Get My Payment’ was the name of the portal launched by the IRS for taxpayers to register for direct deposit or check on the status of their stimulus payment.

Numbers 2 and 3 relate to Google Doodles – with Google launching its ‘Stay and play at home’ initiative, allowing users to play popular Google Doodles from years gone by. Google also released Doodles in April to pay tribute to healthcare workers around the world. 

Number 4 – ‘coronavirus tips’ – is a very broad term, with users looking for ways to mitigate or prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The remainder of the top 25 rising search terms is littered with phrases related to the stimulus check – ‘irs stimulus check portal’, ‘irs get my payment’ and ‘stimulus check status’ all appear near the top of the list. There are also terms which reflect the economic struggles many individuals are facing as a result of the coronavirus – ‘unemployment nc’, ‘unemployment’ and ‘north carolina unemployment’ all appear on the list.

There are a few non-COVID terms on the list. These reflect the other news stories which have made an impact on the public – for example:

7) ‘george floyd’, as searchers look for the latest updates on the story which knocked the coronavirus from the top of the news bulletins in the final week of May. Floyd, an African American man, died after being suffocated by a police officer in Minneapolis, MN on May 25, 2020. The aftermath led to widespread protests across the United States against systemic prejudice.

12) ‘joe exotic’, the focal point of the breakout Netflix documentary series, Tiger King. The show follows Exotic and other like-minded big cat aficionados, the majority of whom are polygamists; one of whom may have fed her husband to tigers; and all of whom are downright strange. 

14) ‘kim jong un’, as rumors circulated in mid-April that the North Korean leader had met his demise or was on life support. The stories appeared to be false; as of this writing, Kim is believed to be alive.

16) ‘google meet’, Google’s platform for video conferencing. The tool saw an 1800% increase in searches in North Carolina compared to the previous period.

RankSearch term% increase on previous period
1stimulus checkBreakout
2popular google doodle gamesBreakout
3thank you coronavirus helpersBreakout
4coronavirus tipsBreakout
5stimulus checksBreakout
6get my paymentBreakout
7george floyd3600%
8irs stimulus check portal3200%
9unemployment nc3000%
10irs get my payment2850%
11stimulus check status2450%
12joe exotic2250%
14kim jong un2150%
15des nc1850%
16google meet1800%
18ahmaud arbery1250%
21zoom app1150%
24north carolina unemployment1050%
25covid 19 symptoms1000%

Measuring the effect on products, services and businesses in North Carolina

The coronavirus outbreak has resulted in few winners and several losers in the business community. As many public-facing establishments such as restaurants, gyms and hair salons have been forced to close their premises, business owners have had to react to rapidly changing consumer habits.

Which products or services have seen an increase in search traffic?

Unsurprisingly, the March madness which resulted in nationwide shortages of essential household products such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper were reflected in Google Trends data. The scale of the demand for these products resulted in unprecedented search spikes – and North Carolina was no exception:

flights trend
toilet paper trend

With restaurants in North Carolina closed under the state’s shelter-in-place order, the popularity of searches for local take out restaurants also increased:

take out restaurants trend

With some consumers reluctant to brave the hustle and bustle of grocery stores, searches for grocery delivery services like Instacart have surged too:

instacart trend

With workers in several industries now confined to their homes, the use of video-conferencing software like Zoom has risen.

zoom trend

Industries negatively affected by coronavirus

Conversely, the reluctance of individuals to travel has had a huge impact on the travel and hospitality industries. Take a look at how flight-related searches have dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic – with searches for ‘CLT’ (the airport code for Charlotte Douglas International Airport) collapsing to a quarter of their prior volume.

flights trend
clt trend

Searches for Airbnb saw a significant drop between March and May – although it appears to be experiencing a renaissance in recent weeks:

airbnb trend

The closure of movie theaters has resulted in searches for local theaters dropping to almost zero:

movie theater trend

Situated in Asheville, the historic Biltmore House was forced to close its doors due to the restrictions put in place by the response to the pandemic. Although searches for Biltmore do tend to be seasonal – peaking at Christmas/New Year, and again in mid-summer – the impact of the reduced search volume is highlighted in the graph below:

biltmore trend

As Biltmore re-opens its doors as part of the phased reopening of the state, one could anticipate the search volume approaching a return to prior levels.

Are these changes here to stay?

Once the state of North Carolina emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, it will remain to be seen whether these short-term trends will actually result in any long-term changes. For example, the enforced move to working from home may have accelerated the use of video-conferencing software like Zoom and Google Meet to the point where it becomes the norm.

But inevitably, Americans will start to travel again, and flights will once again be needed to transport passengers around the nation. Restaurants will be open for dine-in. Tourist destinations will attract visitors. Gyms and beauty salons will re-open. Even with behavioral changes – face masks, social distancing and capacity restrictions – these industries will recover.

The question to consider is those habits which have formed in the midst of the coronavirus, and the consequences these may have for businesses. If the pandemic has helped you to discover the convenience of home delivery for groceries, are you willing to return to a grocery store? If new consumer habits have formed, then Instacart and other similar services could continue to grow as a result.

On the other side of the coin, will CEOs still sign off on expensive business trips when a video call can save copious amounts of time and money? The answer could have significant consequences for the travel and hospitality industries. As with many of the uncertainties created by COVID-19, only time will tell.

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