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The COVID-19 pandemic in search trends

By . Posted 7 March 2022

Search data gives us a snapshot of public perception, demand or interest at a point of time. But it can also provide useful insight to marketers about what triggered a certain activity, pattern of behaviour or shopping habit, which can help to inform strategy into the future and help us be more proactive in our planning and approach.

And over the last two years, search data fluctuated massively as the country got to grips with its new normal.

Taking data from Google Trends and looking at keyword volumes during specific periods, we’ve taken a look at how UK search trends have changed throughout the pandemic and what this can tell us about ecommerce, marketing and brand perception, as well as human behaviour.

COVID-19 search trends: March 2020March 2020 search trends

Zoom

Whilst video conferencing was nothing new for people in certain types of industry and workplace, it certainly was new for the vast majority of the population when it came to a way for keeping in touch with their loved ones and for working remotely when this had never been necessary in the past.

Zoom, a video call service that 200k people in the UK searched for in February 2020, soon became a transitive verb, which many people still use to describe any kind of video call. March 2020 saw the search volume for Zoom leap to 3.9 million and peak at 4.6 million in April 2020 as people in the UK embraced the technology, many for the first time.

The really interesting thing is that even now, nearly two years later and at a point when COVID-19 restrictions are pretty much nil for the general population, around 500k people search for Zoom every month, showing that the brand awareness uplift has lasted all this time and shows no signs of retreating.

Toilet roll search trends

Remember when panic buying caused a global shortage of toilet roll? It wasn’t just people shopping in stores who were lamenting the empty shelves; searches for toilet roll increased from a monthly average of 4k searches in our pre-COVID world to 40k in March 2020. Thankfully, within a few weeks, this returned to normal as the household essential stopped being such a rare commodity again.

TV binge-watching

Binge-watching a favourite TV series was certainly around long before the pandemic hit, but many people found that they suddenly had a lot more time on their hands in March 2020 when the ‘stay at home’ order came into play. Tiger King, which was released that month on Netflix, became a real hit, as did the shows stars, with huge search numbers that lasted for several months.

A combination of escapism, a distraction from the worrying goings-on in the world and a way to spend free time at home that could be discussed during the next family Zoom call or quiz, we saw a number of different shows peaking during various UK lockdowns, but Tiger King remains one of the biggest trends from this period of time.

COVID-19 search trends: April 2020April and May 2020 search trends

Garden makeovers

As the weather improved and the days lengthened, the outdoor spaces that the UK’s fortunate households had access to, whilst still staying at home, became more important than ever and online shopping was the only way to get these products at the time, with non-essential stores closed.

‘Garden furniture’ was a term that skyrocketed in popularity, more than in any ‘normal’ year at that time, although there is always a seasonal increase at this time to some degree. Searches rose from around 95k in April 2019 to a huge 155k in the same month in 2020 and peaked in May 2020 at 180k.

Other garden-focused products that trended at this time included:

  • Firepit – 138k in April 2020, vs 42k in the same month in 2019
  • Chiminea – 52k in April 2020, vs 16k in the same month the previous year
  • Rattan furniture – 30k in April 2020 vs around half of that figure in April 2019

BBQs (also including spelling variations like barbecue and barbeque) did take a jump (55k vs 34k in 2019), but with the restrictions at the time meaning no mixing with other households, this primarily social activity was probably curtailed to some degree at this point.

‘What are the covid rules?’

Understandably, the search term ‘what are the covid rules?’ fluctuated throughout the entirety of 2020 and 2021. This is no surprise when you consider that the rules actually changed anywhere between 60 and 200 times in 2020 alone, depending on where in the UK you lived at the time.

COVID-19 search trends: July/August 2020July and August 2020 search trends

Local hospitality venues

As spring became summer and some lockdown restrictions started to ease in the UK, the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme was launched. With just 1.5k search volume in July 2020 for the term, this jumped to more than 204k in August as public confidence started to grow and people took advantage of the discounts.

The search term ‘Italian restaurants near me’ hit £80k in August 2020 (compared to 50k in the same month of 2019), which highlighted that local SEO was more important than ever for hospitality businesses that were able to operate at this point. There was clear demand for local food businesses and those that kept their details up to date online, such as opening hours and details of any special COVID-19 measures they were taking in their Google My Business listing.

COVID-19 search trends: October-December 2020October 2020 – December 2020 search trends

‘What tier is XX in?’

As the tier system came into play in October and different COVID-19 rules and restrictions applied to specific locations, people understandably started searching for more specific information online about where they or their loved ones lived. The cities with the most searches were London, Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow and they continued to fluctuate throughout the rest of the year.

COVID-19 search trends: Early 2021Early 2021 search trends

Mental health

Throughout the pandemic, the impact of lockdowns and the other restrictions on our mental health has always been a big topic of discussion, which is reflected in search trends throughout the last two years.

‘Lockdown hobbies’

At the start of 2021, as the UK entered ‘Lockdown 3’, searches for ‘things to do in lockdown’ and ‘lockdown hobbies’ peaked higher than they had in the previous two lockdowns. The poor weather at this time of year could well have had something to do with this, along with the well-documented challenges that January often brings for many people, with stretched finances and mental health considerations being some of these. The lockdown novelty had well and truly worn off!

Looking forward

While there were many surveys and news pieces about what people were looking forward to as things started to reopen again, at this point there was also a sizeable chunk of the population who were worried about things ‘going back to normal’ and didn’t necessarily want them to, at least at that stage.

COVID-19 search trends: Mid-2021Mid-2021 search trends

Holiday destinations

With ‘freedom day’ on the horizon in July 2021, those people looking to book holidays to gain back a slice of normality showed us what the most popular locations were with their search behaviour. The top locations searched for during June and July 2021 included:

  • Greece – 15.5k searches
  • UK – 7.3k
  • Turkey – 6.5k
  • Spain – 6.3k
  • Thailand – 3.7k
  • Italy – 2.9k
  • France – 1.3k
  • USA – 1.3k
  • Portugal – 380

Late 2021 search trends

Petrol shortages

Remember the hours of queuing just to reach the pump? The decision by the BBC to send Phil McCann to report on the story? The anxiety about possibly not being able to get to work or care for loved ones because you were running on empty?

COVID-19 search trends: Late 2021Those few weeks were an inconvenience to some and a hugely stressful experience to others, with the number of people searching for petrol prices jumping up by more than 300% at the peak of the shortage. Interestingly, the average searches for electric cars increased by around a third during this time period too by around 25% on normal volumes.

Fears of another lockdown

The emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 towards the end of 2021 and the huge leap in case numbers (plus the reintroduction of some restrictions) meant that the number of people searching the term ‘lockdown’ jumped from around 50k in September 2021 to a peak of 288k in December 2021 as people feared another Christmas lockdown was imminent.

Government parties

As stories started to emerge about the coronavirus law-setters being law-breakers themselves in terms of the legal restrictions imposed on the general public at the time, searches for ‘government parties’ took a jump in early December 2021 from 0 searches in normal times to around 15k. At the time of writing, various investigations are still underway to find the full extent of any potential breaches by those in power, so more search trends in this area could still follow!

What do search trends tell us about the pandemic?

The things that we search for online at any given time can be for a wide variety of reasons, and never more so than during the pandemic. Sometimes we’re looking for news, insight or clarity on the current situation, sometimes for products to help us deal with the challenges of whatever we’re living through, sometimes for things to distract and entertain us as we wait things out, or perhaps to help us plan for the future.

Download the infographic!

COVID-19 search trends: Infographic

Using a combination of trend data, alongside other insight provided by website analytics and other tools, it’s possible to create online marketing and PR strategies that deliver useful information to your audience on what they’re looking at exactly the right time for them to make conversion decisions, using a variety of different channels.

Incorporating data-led campaigns and activity delivered in areas including SEO and digital PR, you can reach the right people with the right messages and make a real difference to your business and your bottom line.

If you’d like to find out more about our approach, our team would love to hear from you via the below form.