Google Search and the Long Pandemic

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Back in 2020, during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, I published a series of studies on Street Fight that made use of Google My Business (now Google Business Profile) data to track the changing behaviors of U.S. consumers across industries. The studies found, for instance, that starting in March 2020 when the first stay-at-home orders were implemented across the country, Google local searches as a whole dropped dramatically in volume, phone calls outpaced driving direction requests for the first time, and consumers switched their interface preference from Maps to Search, generally indicating less out-and-about navigation and more stay-at-home, desktop-oriented activity.

It’s been a while since we’ve looked closely at that data. Chalk it up to pandemic fatigue. Throughout most of 2020, we were collectively looking forward to a vaccine that would put an end to a crazy year and let us all get back to our normal lives. Tracking consumer habits during this period seemed urgent and timely. But as 2021 stretched on, with its vaccine controversies and mutating variants, we realized we were really just living through an indefinite phase in the middle of a long pandemic. Consumer habits, rather than getting back to normal, were settling in to a battle-weary pattern of compromise. It seemed unlikely that local search data would tell us much we didn’t already know. But it turns out the data tells a somewhat encouraging story.

Local search’s evolution during the pandemic

The graph below represents the picture at a macro level: all Searches, Views, and Actions for about 240,000 business locations across the U.S., representing just about every brick-and-mortar vertical, from January 2020 to December 2021. (Searches are instances where a consumer search surfaced a business listing; Views are instances where a listing was displayed to a user, whether in search results or in the context of discovery; Actions are clicks for directions, clicks to call, or clicks to the business website.)

To call out some important early time slices in the graph, the spike in late February to early March 2020 represents panic buying at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., whereas the precipitous drop in search volume around the beginning of April 2020 shows the severity of the initial shutdown phase. Recovery to pre-pandemic search levels appears to be on its way throughout 2020, with an encouraging pair of spikes before and after the Dec 9, 2020 line on the graph, representing Black Friday and pre-Christmas surges in shopping.

The 2021 portion of the chart takes the recovery story into a very different context. Rather than a slow but steady increase in search volume as we saw in 2020, we have modest gains matched with moderate losses from January to September of 2021, equating to a flattened continuum. This is in great contrast to 2020’s (now seemingly illusory) picture of a steady march towards recovery.

On the other hand, search volumes for 2021 were higher overall than 2020, and the holiday shopping period of October to December was noticeably stronger in 2021 than in 2020. I’d argue these trends align with the picture of a populace that has adjusted to a long pandemic with commercial activity that, though lower than pre-pandemic levels, has returned to a kind of adjusted normalcy.

Overall, search volume in 2021 was 14% greater than in 2020. For Q2 2020 (the first full quarter of the pandemic) to Q2 2021, the year-over-year growth in searches was 23%. For Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, growth was more modest at 10%. As for the holidays, Q4 2021 saw a 13% lift in search volumes over Q4 2020.

If we take a closer look at Actions in the Google data, we see another strong sign that consumers in 2021 returned to an adjusted version of normal. Here are Actions for all of 2020:

This is as clear a picture as any of the confusion of our first pandemic year. In pre-pandemic times, driving directions always far outpaced phone calls and website clicks, but in the early part of the pandemic, those trends went topsy-turvy, with millions of consumers reaching for the phone first, and the business website second, to find out if a business was open or had needed items in stock before venturing out. Driving directions surged back in the second half of 2020, but there were still periods of time, most notably the holidays, when consumers turned again to the phone out of uncertainty about store hours and other details.

In 2021, by contrast, the pre-pandemic pattern returned and was largely stable:

With very few exceptions, throughout 2021 driving directions were the dominant action taken when visiting a Google profile, suggesting that people were again out and about visiting local businesses. The exceptions are dates like Valentine’s Day and Easter, the two spikes in call volume on the lefthand side of the chart, when consumers were likely calling ahead to see if stores and restaurants were open or accepting reservations.

Of course, the news is generally good for retailers and other B2C verticals. Though bouncing back from an unusually dire previous year, retail commerce in the U.S. saw its biggest year over year gain in history of close to 20% in Q2 2021.

A significant proportion of the loss in offline retail, which is what our data measures, is made up for by historic gains in online sales as a side effect of the pandemic. Even here, though, there are signs of hope for local retailers, with the ecommerce proportion of U.S. spending dropping from 18.8% in 2020 to 18.1% in 2021.

There are hopes on the horizon of a more complete version of recovery, including recent claims that the passing of Omicron will usher in a true end to the pandemic. Whether or not such optimism is warranted, retailers have already adjusted to consumer habits — including a greater mix of online components in offline retail — that have changed in many ways for good.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.