In a week of uncertainty, when millions of people had to adapt to a raft of changes to everyday life, the country really didn’t need more confusion.
They responded as we respond to almost any dilemma the modern world throws our way: by googling it.
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Some sought to understand the phenomenon, searching “why do my windows steam up” if they didn’t know the word “condensation”, “why do my windows have condensation” if they did, or “why do windows condensate” (a small minority) if they were just showing off.
The more practically minded cared little about the science, instead searching “how to stop condensation” or, perhaps shouting in panic at their smart speaker: “stop condensation on windows”.
Search during the Covid pandemic
As the i’s SEO editor (search engine optimisation – a nerdish way of saying “trying to get more people to read our articles online”) much of my day-to-day work involves trying to make sense of what the nation is googling.
This information – freely available via the website Google Trends – offers boundless insight into our daily preoccupations. These vary from the never-ending medical concerns (always “why does my urine smell”) to the frankly weird number of people searching for the answers on the ITV quiz show Tenable.
It has been particularly illuminating during the pandemic. The rise and fall in people searching for “quiz questions” signalled our initial enthusiasm for – and subsequent disillusion with – Zoom-based family trivia duels. The alarming drop-off in search for “Joe Wicks” indicates that, for many, our vows to get fit in lockdown were short-lived.
Significant spikes for “toilet paper”, “bread recipe” and “how to cut hair” recall the nation adapting to the various challenges of the new normal, and data even demonstrate the emergence of new coronavirus symptoms – searches for “loss of smell and taste” rose to a peak almost two months before the signs were officially recognised by the NHS.
‘What tier am I in?’
It throws up moments of levity, too, even amid the Covid crisis. One announcement of new local restrictions prompted a spike in the quite sensible but glaringly obvious “where is North East England”. And there were enough people googling “which parts of whales are in lockdown” – yes, with that spelling – for it to make a dent in the data.
The events of the last week followed what is by now a customary pattern, as a confused nation attempted to make sense of new restrictions.
Initially, people in England simply wanted to know which tier they were in – and, fortunately, Boris Johnson was on hand to promise a postcode checker during his address to the country on Monday. The nation dutifully googled it in unison to discover that, inevitably, it wasn’t ready.
Not to be deterred, most opted for the straightforward “what tier am I in”, or resigned themselves to scrolling through a lengthy list by searching “tier 2 areas”.
On Wednesday and Thursday there were more than one million searches for “tier 2 lockdown”.
Thoughts then moved on to the rules themselves, and how they would affect freedoms only recently regained after lockdown.
There was despondent search for “can I go to the pub with friends”, while travel was at the forefront of many people’s minds. “Can I go on holiday” was the major concern for those in tier-two and -three regions, and a spike in searches for “can I travel from tier two to tier one” hinted at people who were already plotting an escape.
But as ever, the UK’s search habits reveal that our priorities aren’t always what we would expect. The morning after the tiers announcement, there was plenty of activity for “why is Covid so bad in Liverpool” and “why is Nottingham not in tier three”.
However, these understandable queries were eclipsed by “why were cornflakes invented,” born of an enduring viral rumour of dubious veracity (namely, that the creation of the bland breakfast cereal was a plan to deter young people from masturbation).
Then, of course, came the condensation – but given that there’s not enough space to get into that here, you’ll just have to google it.
Trend of the week: How tall is Barron Trump?
Donald Trump’s son Barron found himself in the news after his father’s scientifically unverified claim that the 14-year-old had contracted coronavirus “for like two seconds”. This prompted 50,000 searches in the UK for the boy’s name on Wednesday, and 500,000 in the US.
It also reminded the internet of the only thing people really know about the President’s youngest child: he’s very tall. Cue a now familiar rush of search for “Barron Trump height” and “how tall is Barron Trump,” often with the stubbornly British addition “…in feet”.
By any measure, they would have been disappointed. There is no official record of Barron’s height, presumably because a) he’s still growing (prodigiously) and b) he’s a 14-year-old boy, and it would be really odd if there were.
The President fanned the flames of interest with his own insights at Thursday’s town hall appearance, saying: “My Barron. My tall Barron. He’s very tall. My beautiful Barron. Handsome. He is handsome.”
An additional spike in search for “how tall is Donald Trump” (six foot three, according to the man himself) suggests people were left trying to calculate the height of his towering progeny themselves.