What and how do we search in times of coronavirus

Fernando Maciá

Written by Fernando Maciá

The coronavirus crisis has impacted our society in multiple aspects and at an unprecedented scale. The fight against an explosive expansion of the COVID-19 has forced governments all around the world to take drastic measures with regard to mobility control, bearing a direct effect on the economic activity of enterprises –almost entirely paralysed for several weeks now– and on the consumption habits of the population.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has upgraded on 11 of March 2020 the situation of public health emergency caused by COVID-19 to a global pandemic, and three days later, the Government of Spain declared the state of alarm. This development initiated the mandatory confinement for the majority of the population, and a decrease in all economic activities, with the exception of those considered essential, to maintain basic services and supply.

Since then, different studies have been published on how this crisis has impacted digital economy, namely Covid-19: its impact on businesses within the digital industry (in Spanish) by Flat 101, regarding which I took part in a round table last week, under the slogan “The impact of COVID-19 on the digital industry“, together with Gemma Muñoz (El Arte de Medir) and Ricardo Tayar (Flat 101), organised by KSchool.

While Flat 101’s study is extremely rich in data on how traffic and conversion data has been affected, based on a broad panel of Spanish e-commerce websites, I wanted to put in my two cents with data more related to Human Level‘s field of work, and that is the impact of Covid-19 on search habits and SEO in general.

With that purpose in mind, and without any intention of giving these charts any scientific validity, I took a look at the data registering the evolution of search potential for some of the most popular search queries, grouped by the field they belong to, using tools like Google Keyword Planner, Google Trends, Keywordtool.io, etc. And even though we had already been publishing some of these screenshots in our Twitter thread, we put together all of our most interesting finds below.

Online purchase

The first sign of this crisis impacting the user’s search behaviour is related to the acquisition of basic necessity products, making up the weekly grocery list of any home. Over the first few days of lockdown, logistics and online selling processes for many supermarkets offering this possibility were also affected by stock shortages of certain products (toilet paper, hand sanitiser, face masks, disinfecting and cleaning products, etc.). Google Trends shows this initial sharp reaction detected in many users, who felt the urgency to stock up and accumulate supplies during these first few days.

This trend got better, as we were able to verify that supply chains continued to work, and compulsive buying to stock up on products for the long term was unnecessary:

online shopping google trends
Impact of the state of alarm declaration on the “online shopping” search term. Source: Google Trends.

Despite the relaxation registered starting from mid-April, search queries related to “online shopping”, “shopping delivery”, etc. registered a very significant growth in March, as we can see in Google Keyword Planner:

Development of online shopping related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)
Development of online shopping-related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

In the following table, we put together the percentage increase of some monthly searches registered in Google Keyword Planner, comparing the searches in March 2020 to the average value obtained over the course of the previous 11 months:

Percentage increase in searches related to supermarkets and online grocery shopping
Percentage increase in searches related to supermarkets and online grocery shopping (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

We can’t help but look in awe at the growth in searches related to the online shopping service or shopping delivery at some of the most popular supermarkets, namely Carrefour, Eroski or Hipercor. The term “carrefour supermarket online shopping” went from 85 monthly searches on average, to a whopping 110,000 in March 2020.

As for products, which registered the most growth, particularly those related to hygiene, cleaning, personal protection and disinfection were the real stars throughout March 2020:

Percentage increase in searches related to hygiene and disinfection
Percentage increase in searches related to hygiene and disinfection (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

The demand for hand sanitiser, face masks, gloves or toiler paper had already been on the rise in February, but it was considerably more significant in March 2020. This demand potential in many cases was severely underexploited, due to various reasons like stock shortage, centralisation of all the available units for health workers (in the case of face masks), and the general stock breakage for the remaining related products.

Travel industry

Severe restrictions to mobility have punished the travel and tourism industry harshly. Searches related to flights and hotels have decreased significantly in March 2020:

Development of travel related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)
Development of travel-related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

In Google Trends we can clearly see the impact of the state of alarm declaration on searches for hotels in some of the most popular destinations in Spain:

How the state of alarm impacted the search for hotels
How the state of alarm has impacted the search for hotels. Source: Google Trends.

Large accommodation booking platforms for tourist apartments, such as Airbnb, Booking, Homeaway, (now Vrbo) TripAdvisor or Wimdu have also been affected:

How the state of alarm impacted the search for accommodation
How the state of alarm has impacted the search for accommodation. Source: Google Trends

As for flight-related search queries, significant decline has been reported in searches for the most popular destinations:

Percentage decline in searches related to flights to popular destinations
Percentage decline in searches related to flights to popular destinations (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

It’s relevant to point out that this decline is more severe in combinations of “cheap flights + destination” than just “flights + destination”. It’s likely that the “cheap” modifier is more related to a holiday search intent, which in these circumstances would be postponed. The “flights + destination” search combination, on the other hand, could imply a real necessity of getting to a certain destination (for example, return of stranded tourists carried out after the declaration of the state of alarm).

Leisure and entertainment

The possibility for the development of leisurely and recreational activities after the state of alarm declaration has been reduced to our home and family environment. Search terms related to physical exercise have experienced a very notable growth, both in terms of purchase of products and accessories, as well as in terms of exercise tables and routines for working out at home.

As for products for home workouts, bike trainer stands have become the real stars of the quarantine, next to weights, dumbbells, or gym mats:

Development of physical exercise product related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)
Development of physical exercise product related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

The percentage increase is actually mind-blowing for search terms like “buy bike trainer stand” or “bike trainer stand carrefour”, although “fitness bands” or “elastic bands” also grow significantly. It is clear that sport enthusiasts have decided to exercise at home and had no time to waste in order to equip themselves with all the necessary tools.

Percentage increase in searches related to products for working out at home
Percentage increase in searches related to products for working out at home (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Although Flat 101’s study was mostly focussed on e-commerce and product sales, it’s important to highlight that the lockdown has pushed us to making the most out of our time at home, not only exercising, but also acquiring or perfecting new hobbies.

And thus, together with purchasing equipment for working out at home, search terms related to videos, apps, or websites with advice and exercise routines, gym tables, fitness exercises, etc. have also grown:

Development of keywords related to websites or apps for fitness and physical exercise (Source: Google Keyword Planner)
Development of keywords related to websites or apps for fitness and physical exercise (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

Homes with kids contributed to the growth of search queries like “home exercise for kids”, which used to register barely 27 monthly searches, and in March it increased to 14,800. Users also looked for videos on YouTube, with exercise tables, and websites with home training routines:

Percentage increase in searches related to websites, videos and apps for physical exercises.
Percentage increase in searches related to websites, videos and apps for physical exercise (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Other areas which have experienced a massive growth are those related to various hobbies, like cooking, or online entertainment platforms (TV or gaming), with a special effect on Disney+, whose launch coincided with the confinement of millions of kids and parents, the latter eager to find their children some entertainment to be able to work at home:

State of alarm declaration effect on TV platform search
State of alarm declaration effect on TV platform search. Source: Google Trends.

Some of the most remarkable growths are related to download and installation of Disney+ and the search for free access to content from other platforms, which launched special offers due to the COVID-19 crisis:

Percentage increase in searches related to TV platforms
Percentage increase in searches related to TV platforms (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

As we’ve seen earlier in the analysis of supermarket products that experienced the most growth, many were related to the possibility of cooking and baking at home. So it’s not unusual that content related to cooking also has grown enormously during these days:

State of alarm effect on search terms related to recipes and cooking
State of alarm effect on search terms related to recipes and cooking. Source: Google Trends.

Online education

One of the biggest winners in this coronavirus crisis is the online education industry. With so much time forced to stay home, us spaniards have thrown ourselves in search for online education opportunities, through multiple formats: courses, training, webinars, etc.:

Development of online course-related keywords (Google Keyword Planner)
Development of online course-related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

We’ve found that the search query “free online courses” has experienced a most remarkable growth, followed by “webinars” and online education. We also thought the increase in searches related to “typewriting” was extremely interesting:

Percentage increase in searches related to courses and online education during the coronavirus crisis
Percentage increase in searches related to courses and online education during the coronavirus crisis. (Source: made by Human level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Apps for remote working

All employees from non-essential sectors forced to stay at home have made businesses to adopt a speedy solution to make remote work possible, against the clock. It is another industry for which the COVID-19 has turned out to be a true catalyst.

State of alarm effect on searches related to apps for remote work and video conferencing
State of alarm effect on searches related to apps for remote work and video conferencing. Source: Google Trends.

The Google Trends chart also shows (second red arrow) the reputation crisis suffered by the Zoom platform, halting its growth, which favoured others like Google Meet or Microsoft Teams. Other live video platforms like Instagram Live or Streamyard also experimented a notable growth in their average monthly searches:

Percentage increase in searches related to apps for remote work during the COVID-19 crisis
Percentage increase in searches related to apps for remote work during the COVID-19 crisis (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Automotive industry

Vehicle sales has become one of the most afflicted industries as a result of the state of alarm declaration. Nevertheless, the recovery of the private car as a means to go to work resulting from the fear of sharing space with other people in public transport could peak once the lockdown is over. Searches related to the top-selling models in 2019 registered a clear decline in March 2020:

Development of car model related keywords after the state of alarm declaration
Development of car model-related keywords after the state of alarm declaration (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

The drops in search potential are around 50%. It’s interesting how “volkswagen golf” stands out as the search term, which has suffered least of all from this setback:

Percentage decline in searches related to popular car models
Percentage decline in searches related to popular car models (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Online banking

Banking procedures during the confinement period have been channelled through online banking platforms of the different financing entities. Nevertheless, the declaration of the state of alarm has also affected operations like mortgages or applications for credits and loans.

Development of online banking and finance related keywords after the state of alarm declaration(Source: Google Keyword Planner)
Development of online banking and finance related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

The most significant growth has been experienced by the search term related to ICO (Official Credit Institute) loans, as part of various lines of credit approved by the Government (in Spanish). Search queries related to online banking, e-banking and consumer credits have also experienced growth, while personal loans and mortgages decreased:

Percentage increase and decrease in searches related to online banking and financial operations
Percentage increase and decrease in searches related to online banking and financial operations (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Pharmacy and parapharmacy

Another winning industry as a result of this crisis. Although we’ve already looked at some searches related to hygiene and protection, which sky-rocketed during the COVID-19 crisis, some queries related to online pharmacies and the so-called ‘parapharmacies’ (where non-prescription remedies or herbal remedies are sold) or vitamin supplements, that could allegedly could help boost our defences and immune system, have also grown:

Development of pharmaceutical industry related keywords
Development of pharmaceutical industry related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

Some of the most interesting increases in terms of nutritional supplements are “vitamin c”, “vitamin d”, and “vitamin d3”, probably resulting from news like these.

Percentage increase in searches related to pharmacy and chemists
Percentage increase in searches related to pharmacy and parapharmacy (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Searches like “online pharmacy” or “online parapharmacies” also experienced a significant growth during the coronavirus crisis, going from 25,000 average monthly searches to 135,000 in the first case, while the latter tripled its previous volume.

Legal consultancies and administrators

Another sector that has suffered a huge impact as a result of the coronavirus crisis are legal consultancies and administrators, the go-to professionals for many self-employed workers and small entrepreneurs to gather information on government aids, management of processes for temporary lay-offs (known as ERTE in Spain, which more specifically can be translated as temporary employment regulation proceedings), dismissals, subsidies, ICO credits, etc.

Development of keywords related to legal and labour consulting
Development of keywords related to legal and labour consulting (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

Of course, amongst the search queries experiencing more growth are “erte” (temporary employment regulation proceeding), which has gone from 3,400 average monthly searches to an impressive 1.5 million monthly searches in March 2020. Other keywords deserving a special mention are those including terms like “dismissals”, some of which are particularly disheartening, like “houseworker dismissal”:

Percentage increase in searches related to legal consultancies, dismissals and subsidies (Sources: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).
Percentage increase in searches related to legal consultancies, dismissals and subsidies (Sources: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

We also detect a massive growth in searches related to ICO credits, a percentage increase over 1,000%. The lack of digitalisation in this industry becomes evident, with a scarce 43% growth for these services in their online form.

Lottery and gambling

Another obvious loser in this COVID-19 crisis is the industry of lottery, pools, coupons, etc. with a pronounced decrease particularly affecting specific games, like Bonoloto or the ONCE coupon. This is probably due to how the lockdown has affected the possibility of acquiring them in person.

Development of lottery-related keywords
Development of lottery-related keywords (Source: Google Keyword Planner)

The most popular searches register drops from 40% to 100%, with one unique exception of an enormous growth for the “pools drawing lots”, of 1,043%. Indeed, with football league matches suspended, the results of the pools have to be settled with a drawing lot, instead of the usual method of using game results.

Percentage decline in searches related to lottery and betting
Percentage decline in searches related to lottery and betting (Source: made by Human Level with data extracted from Google Keyword Planner).

Many losers and some winners

The coronavirus crisis leaves many losers, but also some winners. The lockdown imposed on the majority of the population has negatively impacted consuming behaviours more directly related to in-person shopping (retail) or service consumption (hospitality, travel, gyms, beauty…). These would be the biggest losing parties.

But, on the other hand, staying at home has made businesses –who hadn’t done it yet– to adopt remote working and online meetings. It also focussed leisure decisions on purchasing products for physical exercise, subscription to entertainment platforms, or online courses.

The impact of this pandemic has made us all face an entirely new phenomenon, and it has had obvious repercussions even on the type of disorders we can suffer, namely anxiety and depression:

State of alarm impact on searches related to depression or anxiety
State of alarm effect on searches related to depression or anxiety. Source: Google Trends.

Once we return to the state of what we’ve started to call “the new normal”, we have no doubt new needs and priorities will arise, which may forever alter the search patterns of millions of consumers. And as always, in digital marketing we have to be constantly alert to adapt to these changes, and find new visibility opportunities for our clients, to respond to the new needs and demands of their prospective customers.

Is there any analysis of an industry you’re missing here? Would you like to share an interesting find on search behaviours that changed with the arrival of the novel coronavirus? We’ll be waiting for your thoughts.

Fernando Maciá
Autor: Fernando Maciá
CEO of Human Level. He's an expert in SEO, online marketing plans and web internationalisation. He's also a digital marketing teacher and an accomplished writer, having published several books on web positioning, social media marketing, and strategies to earn customers on the Internet.

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