Online search behaviour may reflect real-world economic life

By April 18, 2012
GDP dices and money

There may be a link between Google searches worldwide and real-world economic indicators. An analysis has shown that Internet users from countries with a higher per capita GDP are more likely to search for information about the future than the past.


Is there a correlation between Internet users' online behaviour on search engines and the real-world economic situation of the country they live in ? This is the hypothesis that the four researchers* who carried out the analysis wanted to test. Their study - whose findings have just been published in the journal Scientific Reports - compares the volume of searches in Google and the GDP per inhabitant. The results reveal that Internet users from countries with higher GDP are more likely to search for information about the future than on the past. This seems to reflect the fact that these users are more able to project themselves into the future.

Modelling Internet searches and GDP

The research team examined Google search queries made by Internet users in 45 different countries in 2010 and then calculated the ratio of the volume of searches regarding events in the coming year (2011) to the volume of searches for information about what happened the previous year (2009), which they call the 'future orientation index'. The team retrieved the search volume data by accessing the Google Trends website, and analysed more than 45 billion search queries carried out worldwide. They compared the future orientation index to the per capita GDP of each of the 45 countries for 2010 sourced from the CIA World Factbook. At the top of the rankings we find users from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan.

International differences

Users from the United States, Canada and Italy came in close behind. "We see two leading explanations," comments UCL visiting researcher Tobias Preis, who is based at Boston University. "Firstly, these findings may reflect international differences in attention to the future and the past," he explains, adding: "Where a focus on the future supports economic success". The second explanation posited by Tobias Preis is that "these findings may reflect international differences in the type of information sought online, perhaps due to economic influences on available Internet infrastructure".

*From Boston University, ETH Zurich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University College, London.

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