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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Covid-19 pandemic: How Google is keeping up with India’s changing search queries

Search for hyperlocal news, queries around vaccines and some of the myths related to them, hunt for vaccination centres, and increasing queries for ‘black fungus’ or mucormycosis are just some of the trends that Google has seen with the Covid-19 pandemic

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Chandigarh |
Updated: June 14, 2021 7:10:42 pm
Google COVID 19, Google COVID-19 search, Covid-19 search, Google Maps vaccine centresCOVID-19 has resulted in a new kind of search queries: Here's how Google is keeping up. In this series of screenshots, Google shows information on real-time bed availability at a hospital.

Search for hyperlocal news, queries around vaccines and the myths related to them, hunt for vaccination centres, and increasing queries for ‘black fungus’ or mucormycosis are just some of the trends that Google has seen with the Covid-19 pandemic and the second wave that recently hit India.

“Last year, a lot of the information that users were looking for was about the disease and how one contracts it. But obviously, the needs have increased manifold this year as the second wave struck,” Anal Ghosh, Senior Program Manager, Google Maps (South Asia) told over a call.

One interesting feature that Google launched during the second wave in May was a pilot to show real-time availability of hospital beds and oxygen needs on its Maps product. There was high demand for both during the peak of the second wave when Google announced the feature, which relied on crowd-sourcing for the results.

Ghosh revealed that based on the response, they are likely to extend it pan-India, though he did not give a timeline for the same. “We wanted to provide a way where we can give credible information from users and merchants, who actually know the latest information that’s there at those locations. We focused on all hospitals which are treating Covid-19 patients only,” he explained, adding that Google already has a lot of oxygen suppliers added to Maps and Search.

In many cases, users who visited some of these locations would have got a notification from Google prodding them to answer questions about beds availability or oxygen supply depending on the location. For example, if someone was at a Covid hospital where Google was running the pilot, they could get a notification on Maps asking them to answer some questions about the place such as around bed availability, oxygen supplies, etc.

But Ghosh also revealed that Google also kept the answers live only for 24 hours at many of these places where it ran the pilot, given the information kept changing. “Initially the information on availability of beds and oxygen was very fluid. It was changing in hours. When we launched what we did was we kept all answers with a timestamp saying that this was answered five or five hours ago,” he said.

It piloted the project in five states. But given the fluid nature of information, Google also had to make sure they had “very strict and stringent checks” to combat any sort of misinformation and spam.

“We want to ensure that there is no sort of fake news that’s been thrown around in this answer so we have put those systems in place. We are confident about this feature being helpful across India and are working on extending it to all of India,” he added.

Anal Ghosh, Senior Program Manager, Google Maps (South Asia) in this file photo. (Image source: Google)

Ghosh says the company has a dedicated team in India for COVID response, which is continuously tracking what users are looking for and what is increasing, and how they can help them with the most latest information.

On vaccine information

In 2021 as the vaccination programme has expanded in India, resulting queries around it have also increased. In fact, Google’s own trends data shows a spike in search COVID-19 vaccine starting May, when the government opened it to all above the age of 18.

But this spike in queries has also meant that Google has had to evolve both Search and Maps to show information related to vaccination centres, answer queries related to the effectiveness of vaccines, etc.

So now when you search now, the results have a dedicated tab for Covid-19 vaccine as well. This dedicated module also tries to answer queries around some common vaccine-related myths and facts.

For example, Search tries to answer questions on whether vaccines cause infertility, what’s the impact of vaccines on menstruation, whether pregnant and lactating women can take the vaccine, which vaccines are allowed in India.

According to Ghosh, with vaccination, more users are asking such questions and Google wants to make sure they are providing accurate information. “More users are looking for specific information. So, what we have done is within search we have actually created a new module all together which is focused on vaccines,” Ghosh explained. Google is further amplifying this information on Search by mapping vaccine centres and testing centres on Maps. Currently, it has around 23,000 vaccine centres and more than 2500 testing centres listed across the country.

Another trend around vaccination has been that when it first opened, people were fine with booking a centre even if it was far away from their home, which has changed somewhat. “Initially, there was a sort of hustle to do whatever centre you get in the city, even if it’s at the other end of the city. Now users are looking for centres that are near the location, and then basically deciding on booking if appointments are available,” he revealed.

There’s also been an increase in search queries on specific vaccine centres on Maps. “These are hospitals and healthcare centres that already existed on maps, but now more users are searching for them,” he added.

More hyperlocal, search on Black Fungus

Unlike 2020 which saw a national lockdown in India, this year lockdowns and their rules have been decided by the state governments on an individual basis. The end result was the people’s search was more hyper-local as they tried to find rules for the lockdown in their own state or city. Google says it is trying to highlight news results from local sources, which can answer these queries more effectively.

The second wave also saw newer queries with people specifically looking for Covid hospitals, pulse oximeters and more recently ‘black fungus’ or mucormycosis. For testing centres, Google has been continuously working with ICMR, so that when a new centre is getting added, they have added it to Maps.

“Our focus is that all the results that you see on top of the search results are authoritative, accurate, and the latest. To give a very recent example is mucormycosis, for which queries have increased significantly in the last few weeks. But there is a lot of misinformation on this topic. Now, we have a dedicated module on black fungus results, which is directly coming from the government authorities so it tells you what mucormycosis is, the symptoms, including that we should stop calling it a black fungus,” Ghosh said.

Google also says it is doubling down on running a focused marketing campaign called Get the facts, explaining to users how to come to Google and get answers to all the questions around Covid-19 and vaccines.

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