Dr. Google and the Coronavirus Outbreak

Are we on the brink of a pandemic? Frankly, we don’t know and perhaps our opinions shouldn’t carry that much weight. After all, we’re marketers, not infectious disease experts. So we popped the pandemic question to what we deem a reliable source. As it turns out, the top result from Dr. Google was an opinion piece in which an infectious disease expert offered a closely reasoned opinion to the question “Is it a pandemic yet?”

“It’s now clear,” writes Michael T. Osterholm, the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, “that the epidemic was never going to be contained.” 

We report this, not to heighten alarm, but rather to illustrate a larger point: Google has become, for many, a go-to source for health questions and, not coincidentally, to resolve deep-seated fears. Because Google answers are data-driven, they warrant our attention, inspection and closer consideration as market researchers. This applies to the coronavirus. What can we realistically expect at the present moment with circumstances rapidly changing?

We believe that many of our questions have answers and that those are to be found quickly. Here’s why…

Google searches a vast ocean of big digital data, weighs their significance and rank, and then reports them for the searcher to use. Or in this case, searchers and medical researchers. Reliance on Google to interpret symptoms has often allowed clever researchers to anticipate the outbreak of flu and other sicknesses, well in advance of the more traditional public health measures and monitors.

As market researchers who mine healthcare insights daily, Google and the analytics it generates offer an indispensable tool which, when combined with human inputs, can provide a window through which to gauge human thoughts and behaviors. We can move alongside the paths of patients and physicians. In our world then, Google is a stunningly important cultural artifact, an unparalleled database of human intentions. 

But with coronavirus? It could be far more impactful, predictive and…maybe even curative.

“What is coronavirus?” Is Just The Tip

We’ve found people, quite expectedly, are asking what coronavirus is or what causes it. Some ask about special or vulnerable populations (e.g. “What causes coronavirus in babies?”). Many are looking for a point of comparison or a better sense of what coronavirus is like: “Is coronavirus the flu?” or “Can coronavirus cause a cold?”

Some are seeking to learn how this new enemy intersects with what’s already known: “What about MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) or SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)?”

Progressing, we see the question of “What is it?” has already led to “How will I know if I have it?”  With Covid-19 deaths starting to be reported in the US, the urgency is pitched. One rising query is “How long does Coronavirus live on surfaces?” This is giving rise to a chain reaction of related searches (and potential responses) or “hand sanitizer.” Not a surprisingly spike in the current climate (see below).

The Next And The New

The next wave of questions is breaking now in the digital domain. We’re seeing search rapidly moving through the funnel from consideration to action and pushing faster and faster to the new horizon: seeking reliable answers to remedy and relief. Questions like “How to recognize Coronavirus?” and “How to diagnose Coronavirus?” are on everybody’s radar, naturally, but we’re also starting to see “How to cure Coronavirus?”

As answers to these questions emerge, we’ll see Dr. Google’s algorithms finesse and hone patients’ and physicians’ questions daily. Consider this: In a matter of weeks, we could go from “What is coronavirus?” to “Does my local drug store carry the vaccine for Coronavirus?”

Is it too much to hope our collective urgent questions will hasten the desired answers? We’ll keep searching…

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