A different kind of viral marketing

With things in the world ever-so-slowly getting back to normal, now more than ever it is important for new outbreaks of COVID-19 to be detected and contained wherever they arise. A recent report from the BBC detailed a newly proposed method of catching an outbreak before it occurs: search engine searches.

I remember being shown Google Trends by my teacher in secondary school; the software collates all internet searches (and for older data, books and newspapers) in a single database and lets users search, compare, and illustrate search trends over time. For instance, the term ‘Trump’ sees its search peak on the 6th of November 2016, just before his election.

Google’s world-leading marketing software, Google Ads, is basically the big brother to this software, and allows marketeers to see search for trends with unmatched fidelity. Google Ads is now being used by some researchers to look for search terms associated with COVID-19 and its symptoms. Though still very much in its infancy, the research seems to show a strong correlation between searchers for symptoms and a subsequent spike in cases. In theory, search data could be used to predict an outbreak several days before cases begin to rise, allowing more time for containment measures to be put in place.

The report points out that this method for detecting outbreaks could be especially useful in countries with less developed health systems than our own. Though lacking in other medical data, searches might help authorities decide when it’s time to lock an area down.

The method has come under some criticism, however. The media may also play a key role in prompting spikes in searches for specific symptoms. This would see a greater number of people searching for symptoms even if they’re not experiencing any, compromising the data collected by the software. 

Despite this, though, the correlation between searches and cases is undeniable, however, and would surely aid in decision making processes surrounding containment.

The tech is amazing, but I can’t help but find it a little eerie as well. Data is the new gold rush – no doubt – and no company on Earth holds as much data as Google. It is surely comforting to see this wealth of information being put to good use, but it leaves me questioning what other facets of human behaviour it could be used to predict or, worse still, manipulate. 

On the other hand, I really do quite enjoy having free and infinite access to all the world’s knowledge through their search engine; perhaps our search data is a worthy trade for this privilege.

Scientists are investigating a possible link between internet search terms and medical problems

By Rebecca Garland on 26/06/2020