Who's Googling What? What Internet Searches Reveal about Hurricane Information Seeking

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  • 1 Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, Mississippi
  • | 2 University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
  • | 3 Weather Underground, San Francisco, California
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Two freely available, searchable databases that track the normalized interest in specific search queries, Google Trends and Google Insights, were used to illustrate spatial and temporal patterns in hurricane information seeking. Searches for the word “hurricane” showed a seasonal pattern with spikes in hurricane searches that corresponded to the severity of the storms making landfall. Regional variation in “hurricane” searches was largely driven by the location and magnitude of hurricane landfalls. Catastrophic hurricanes such as Hurricane Katrina captured national attention. A great deal of regional variation in search volume existed prior to Hurricane Ike's landfall. Not as much variation was seen before Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Fay. This variation appeared to be related to changes in the 5-day track forecast as well as other factors such as issuance of watches and warnings. Searches from Louisiana experienced a sharp decrease after the 5-day track forecast shifted away from the state, but before Ike made landfall. Normalized daily visits to Weather Underground during August/September 2008 followed the same pattern as the Google searches. The most popular hurricane-related search terms at the national level prior to landfall dealt with forecast track and evacuation information while searches after landfall included terms related to hurricane damage. There are limitations to using this free data source, but the study has implications for the literature as well as practical applications. This study provides new information about online search behavior before a hurricane that can be utilized by those who provide weather information to the public.

Two freely available, searchable databases that track the normalized interest in specific search queries, Google Trends and Google Insights, were used to illustrate spatial and temporal patterns in hurricane information seeking. Searches for the word “hurricane” showed a seasonal pattern with spikes in hurricane searches that corresponded to the severity of the storms making landfall. Regional variation in “hurricane” searches was largely driven by the location and magnitude of hurricane landfalls. Catastrophic hurricanes such as Hurricane Katrina captured national attention. A great deal of regional variation in search volume existed prior to Hurricane Ike's landfall. Not as much variation was seen before Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Fay. This variation appeared to be related to changes in the 5-day track forecast as well as other factors such as issuance of watches and warnings. Searches from Louisiana experienced a sharp decrease after the 5-day track forecast shifted away from the state, but before Ike made landfall. Normalized daily visits to Weather Underground during August/September 2008 followed the same pattern as the Google searches. The most popular hurricane-related search terms at the national level prior to landfall dealt with forecast track and evacuation information while searches after landfall included terms related to hurricane damage. There are limitations to using this free data source, but the study has implications for the literature as well as practical applications. This study provides new information about online search behavior before a hurricane that can be utilized by those who provide weather information to the public.

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