COVID-19 online search analysis: the Spanish example
2020-08-17 13:40:34 Gerard Marrugat Gerard Marrugat

COVID-19 online search analysis: the Spanish example

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect our eating habits? What conclusions can we extract doing an online search analysis?

When the confinement started, most TV news echoed how certain products were disappearing from the supermarket shelves. However, one of the major questions that raises from this fact is: how have our eating habits been affected by confinement?

On March 14th, 2020, the Spanish government announced the alarm state, and as a consequence, most citizens confined themselves in their places, and reduced the visits to shops and supermarkets. Instead, they opted for changing their traditional way to acquire aliments.

If what we search online matches what we finally buy and do, could Google be our soul’s mirror? To answer this question, we examined which were the most searched food terms during the first months of confinement in Spain. To that end, we used Google Trends, allowing us to see the popularity of a word or term by region, time span and category. In this tool, the popularity of a specific term is defined as the number of searches containing this term compared to the overall Google searches. Values appearing in the figures below are normalized, divided by the maximum value, thus presenting the popularity data in a 0-100 scale.

What do our searching habits say about us?

Online shopping explodes initially; levels reduce to a higher level than previous months

If we focus on the term “compra online” (online shopping) in the Drinks and Food in Spain for the last 12 months one can observe the raise in popularity during the 8-14th March week, reaching its maximum the 22-28th March week, the second week of confinement.

Source: Google Trends

Fruit and vegetables, the kings and queens

To analyze what products are more frequent in the shopping baskets, it is necessary to look at food subcategories. In the following example, a comparison between vegetables, fruits, fish, snacks and pastries is made (in Spanish: verduras, frutas, pescado, snack, repostería). One can see how after the 8th of March the interest of the three first search terms increase, reaching a popularity level way above the one they had before the confinement, reflecting a supposed increase in the consumption of these products. The peak in fish observed a few months before corresponds to Christmas, when fish and seafood consumption is increased in Spain.


Source: Google Trends

To make sure that these products are not seasonal (increase in specific months throughout the year), we should look at the same data from previous years. In this case, we used the 4 previous years with the same subcategory comparison.


Source: Google Trends

We can clearly see how the fluctuation of popularity levels for fish and vegetables is similar across years, always centred around Christmas, what shows a seasonal change in search behaviour for this type of food. However, March and April months of previous years do not show the abrupt changes observed in 2020, proving that confinement modified what we consume.

Desserts and homemade food (and if kids like it, better)

When buying food, people search the product name and not the category, it is we look for apple and not for fruit. If you compare some examples for each subcategory, we can see a similar tendency. An interesting case of this effects can be seen in pastry products. The work flour (harina) is more popular than any other one, reaching its maximum during Easter, a moment of the year when many traditional sweets are eaten (torrijas, mona de Pascua, buñuelos de viento). Many people reported not founding essential products to prepare cakes, cookies or biscuits, and Google trends shows us the reason.


Source: Google Trends

Another question that can come to our minds after observing the figure is if people choose precooked goods or prefer to cook their own food.


Source: Google Trends

In the figure above, the average interest for precooked meals and cooking recipe has been calculated, dividing the confinement periods (07/01/2019- 14/03/2020) and during confinement (15/03/2020 – 05/05/2020). In both time periods, the interest in cooking recipes is higher than the interest for precooked meals, but the difference is accentuated during confinement. The recipe cooking interest goes from being 3 times more popular than precooked meals to being 11 times more popular!

Regarding the food menus, after schools and their canteens closed, lots of families may have had greater concerns on their ability to proportionate their children a healthy and varied diet, and the Google search trends support it. The interest for the search term “recipes for children” (recetas para niños) is more present in search engines from mid-March to early May, above the average interest for this term. 


Source: Google Trends

Alcohol also rises

Finally, let's see a comparison in the drinks category. The following figure compares the monthly average popularity value of the terms “alcoholic drinks” (bebidas alcholicas), and “refreshing drinks” (bebidas refrescantes) between May 2019 and April 2020.


Source: Google Trends

Like in the second analysis, it is preferred to use a specific product name than to use a whole category. For instance, if we compare cola and beer, the overall interest of beer is always greater than the cola one. During the confinement, as bars and restaurants were closed, this has been a very popular product, as it has the socialization and festivity attached meaning.


Source: Google Trends

Conclusions:

 This data reveal us that the interest in food products is greater since people have been confined in their houses. Spending more time in our places, the access to the fridge and pantry is easier, and it may lead to developing new eating behaviours, such as eating between hours. We can also see new behaviours. Lot of people are devoting more time to cook, preparing weekly menus, innovating or cooking with children. In a nutshell, social restrictions have had a massive impact in our eating and food consumption habits, and the reported data evidence it.

2020-08-17 13:40:34 Gerard Marrugat Gerard Marrugat