Information-Seeking Patterns During the COVID-19 Pandemic Across the United States: Longitudinal Analysis of Google Trends Data

Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people’s lives at unprecedented speed and scale, including how they eat and work, what they are concerned about, how much they move, and how much they can earn. Traditional surveys in the area of public health can be expensive and time-consuming, and they can rapidly become outdated. The analysis of big data sets (such as electronic patient records and surveillance systems) is very complex. Google Trends is an alternative approach that has been used in the past to analyze health behaviors; however, most existing studies on COVID-19 using these data examine a single issue or a limited geographic area. This paper explores Google Trends as a proxy for what people are thinking, needing, and planning in real time across the United States. Objective: We aimed to use Google Trends to provide both insights into and potential indicators of important changes in information-seeking patterns during pandemics such as COVID-19. We asked four questions: (1) How has information seeking changed over time? (2) How does information seeking vary between regions and states? (3) Do states have particular and distinct patterns in information seeking? (4) Do search data correlate with—or precede—real-life events? Methods: We analyzed searches on 38 terms related to COVID-19, falling into six themes: social and travel; care seeking; government programs; health programs; news and influence; and outlook and concerns. We generated data sets at the national level (covering January 1, 2016, to April 15, 2020) and state level (covering January 1 to April 15, 2020). Methods used include trend analysis of US search data; geographic analyses of the differences in search popularity across US states from March 1 to April 15, 2020; and principal component analysis to extract search patterns across states. Results: The data showed high demand for information, corresponding with increasing searches for coronavirus linked to news sources regardless of the ideological leaning of the news source. Changes in information seeking often occurred well in advance of action by the federal government. The popularity of searches for unemployment claims predicted the actual spike in weekly claims. The increase in searches for information on COVID-19 care was paralleled by a decrease in searches related to other health behaviors, such as urgent care, doctor’s appointments, health insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Finally, concerns varied across the country; some search terms were more popular in some regions than in others. Conclusions: COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last pandemic faced by the United States. Our research holds important lessons for both state and federal governments in a fast-evolving situation that requires a finger on the pulse of public sentiment. We suggest strategic shifts for policy makers to improve the precision and effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions and recommend the development of a real-time dashboard as a decision-making tool.

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Information-Seeking Patterns During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Across the United States: Longitudinal Analysis of Google Trends