Google’s reputation as a trend predictor is well known and widely celebrated. For instance, the Center for Disease Control uses Google data to predict the spread of flu outbreaks. Google is the knower of all things.
According to economists, the economy is turning around and the recession is over. But using Google Trends, a tool that allows you to view historical search volume data for any term, you can get a real good sense for the ever-evolving consumer zeitgeist. According to Google, people are closing businesses, buying fewer boats and RVs, buying things in bulk, taking the bus and shopping at dollar stores. Hardly sounds like a “recovery” does it?
Please note, as view these graphs, you’ll see little letters in the search timeline. These represent Google’s attempt to correlate key events with any surges in searches. You can click on any graph and view it at Google, where you can find hotlinks to the lettered events Google has called out.
Searches for “jobs” were consistently flat between 2005 and 2007 as the unemployment rate hovered between 4% and 5%. Google searches for “jobs” started moving up in January 2008. By the end of 2008, unemployment crested 7%, resulting in a significant spike for Google “job” searches. It doesn’t look like job-related pressures on the economy will be easing anytime soon.
Starting around Thanksgiving 2008, searches for phrases related to “unemployment” shot up two-fold, then flattened out for 24 months. You might think the graph shows improvement as we move into 2011, but remember: unemployment checks in the US stop after 99 weeks.
Searches for “unemployed” and “unemployment check” are similarly gloomy.
Consumers, feeling the strains of a depressed economy, are looking for ways to shave expenses wherever they can. At the start of the recession, use of coupons in some categories like day-to-day necessities increased as much as 200%. Last year, coupon usage grew by 27%, the second highest year-over-year growth ever recorded. And let’s not forget the meteoric rise of the popular online couponing website Groupon.
A record number of Americans — around 45 million — now rely on food stamps. That means nearly 1 in 7 people, or 14%, are living on food stamps. The number of food stamp recipients increased 16% in 2010.
People are spending less on fun toys like a “four wheeler” and are instead looking for ideas to save more.
People aren’t buying expensive items like cars and durable goods as much as they used to. Not even gas-saving hybrid cars are exempt from this downward trend. Interestingly, spikes in searches for maintenance related issues like “new tires” and “oil change” suggest people are looking for ways to keep their old cars running longer.
This is one of the more telling graphs in the series. People have become so desperate to save a nickel that they will actually spend time Googling around for something like “free parking,” where searches are up around 100%.
People are taking fewer vacations. Searches for specific vacation destinations like “Maui,” “St. Croix,” “Bahamas,” and “Vail” are all down. Cruises are down. “Disneyland” has been flat since 2006. But “Vegas” is up, with a recent spike, perhaps proving the irrational behavior that afflicts people in panic mode: “I don’t have a dime to my name, so let’s go blow it on longshot in Vegas!”
While the well-to-do might be taking fewer rides in fancy stretched limos, they aren’t cutting back on everything. “Caviar” is trending up and searches for a “private jet” are holding steady.
While mobile banking has been around since the 90s, it didn’t really take off until smart phones — specifically Apple’s iPhone — revolutionized the wireless industry. The surge in interest in “mobile banking” almost identically mirrors that of the “iPhone,” and closely approximates actual adoption rates among consumers.
For all the talk about the “death of branches” in the financial industry, Google’s trending data suggests the opposite. Even in western countries with lots of education and heavy tech, like Canada, searches for bank branches are holding steady.