How Google searches and consumer habits are changing

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How search queries are getting more specific and consumer concerns are affecting purchase decisions as we approach 2023

The Covid-19 pandemic drastically changed consumer habits and how people interacted with search engines. Now, consumers face multiple crises of public health, cost of living and various other concerns that are shaping their priorities and purchase habits.

In this article, we look at the latest insights to see how evolving search trends, technology and consumer concerns are changing the way people use search engines and spend their money.

Search queries are getting more specific

Google recently published some insights on the evolution of searches since 2016, showing that users are getting more specific with their queries. The writers explain how searches are typically made up of two components – topics and modifiers – with the modifiers playing a larger role over time.

“A search phrase is usually made up of two parts. One is the topic and the other the context-setter, describing what people want to know about a topic. We call these descriptive words ‘modifiers’. They help people navigate information more easily.”

The structure of a Google search query

If we look at searches in the UK related to “wedding dress” between 2016 and 2022, you can see how queries have become more complex. Users are applying more modifiers – and increasingly specific modifiers – to their search queries as the search experience continues to evolve.

How searches for wedding dresses have evolved over time

This has several benefits for search marketers and advertisers. First of all, modifiers make queries like “wedding guest outfits for over 50s” far less competitive than top-level queries like “wedding dress,” opening up accessible search opportunities to a wider range of businesses.

On a broader level, these queries help marketers cover the whole consumer journey and pinpoint key moments along the way. For example, queries like “floaty dress for wedding dress” open paid advertising opportunities but also content opportunities at the earlier planning stages of the funnel.

As long-tail keywords play a more prominent role in the search journey, marketers can use them to access earlier stages of the buying process that aren’t easily accessible through more generic keywords like “wedding dress”.

Most importantly, these searches help brands to pinpoint detailed consumer demands and deliver highly relevant messages, instead of relying on generic campaigns with larger audience segments.

Finally, the long-term benefit of specific queries is they provide more insights into consumer demands and how they change over time. This is particularly important in the challenging times everybody has faced in recent years and the scale of disruption caused by pandemics, conflicts and economic crises.

UK consumers are more selective about their purchases

As search queries become more specific, they reveal how UK consumers are making more selective purchase decisions than they have done in the past. Another example from Google’s write-up shows how queries related to “sustainability” have evolved over the years and how attitudes have changed during this period:

How searches for 'sustainability' have evolved since 2016

We’ve discussed how marketers can use specific queries to build better campaigns but we also have to consider why searches have changed in this way to fully understand the intent behind them.

1. Google is better at understanding complex searches

Google breakthroughs in AI and machine learning over the years mean its search engine is more capable of understanding complex queries – and delivering the right content for them. Rewind back to 2016 and long-tail keywords like “wedding guest outfits for over 50s” would have returned a mess of results.

Now, Google is much better at understanding the full context of queries and matching it to relevant content.

Example of Google Mum technology in a search

The better Google becomes at understanding and delivering content for complex queries, the more advanced user queries will get. Likewise, as brands get better returns from publishing more specific content, they’ll continue to delve deeper into topics and consumer demands.

2. Users are more educated about topics like sustainability

If we go back to the evolution of queries related to “sustainability,” it shows how user knowledge of a topic can influence future trends. Back in 2016, searches for “sustainability definition” were far more common than they are in 2022 where users are now searching specifically for “sustainable kids clothing” and “sustainable gym wear uk”.

Sustainability searches

The evolution of these searches shows how users progressed from basic definitions to understanding specific issues, such as fast fashion and sustainable clothing. Obviously, this has an impact on how people in the UK are buying clothes – online and offline – which retailers need to respond to.

3. UK consumers forced to question their purchasing habits

Impending climate doom isn’t the only reason UK consumers have had to question their purchasing habits. Little more than two years into a global pandemic, consumers now face one of the worst cost-of-living crises in decades with things expected to get worse in 2023.

Such crises always have an impact on consumer habits and, in the digital age, the queries users type into search engines. The peak of the coronavirus pandemic was the strongest example we’ve seen of this where search trends rocketed overnight – in some cases, only for a short period but, in others, having a long-term impact on search habits.

Instead of simply searching for “restaurants”, people moved from searching for restaurants that offered takeaway services to those with outdoor seating. Later, as the world started opening up again, travellers had to search for plane tickets with refund policies and travel insurance with cover for Covid-19 disruption.

Now, the cost of living crisis is the top concern for consumers in the UK and it’s already having an impact on search and consumer habits.

Cost of living replaces Covid-19 as top concern

Over the past few years, the biggest disruption to consumer habits has been the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this has dropped down the list of consumer concerns in 2022 with economic factors and the invasion of Ukraine causing significantly more concern now.

According to a survey carried out by McKinsey, rising prices are by far the top concern for consumers right now and consumers in the UK are particularly concerned when compared to other European nations.

What consumers are most worried about in the UK

Source

These concerns will have an impact on consumer purchases and how they use search engines. We saw this throughout the first two years of the pandemic, as shown by Google’s Year in Search 2021 report.

With consumer attention focused on economic uncertainty, we’re seeing the cost of living crisis have a similar impact on search behaviours. As shown by this analysis from HR software provider Ciphr, searches for “cost of living” in the UK increased by 1,590% between August 2021 and August 2022.

Search volume per month for terms like interest rates, petrol prices, cost of living and energy bills

Source

At the same time, searches for “interest rates,” “petrol prices,” “energy bills” and “food prices” have all increased over the same period. Meanwhile, separate research shows searches for solar panels have increased by 334% this year, as energy bills reach record highs, while searches for “how to reduce energy bills,” “apply for a loan” and “food banks” are all drastically increasing.

UK consumers pulling back on non-essential spending

Naturally, the cost of living crisis will affect everyone to different extents but nobody is immune when interest rates, energy bills and other essentials reach record highs. As a result, even people in a relatively strong position to deal with economic uncertainty may be questioning their purchase decisions in the year ahead.

If the pandemic is anything to go by, people will continue to spend money but how and where they spend it could change significantly.

In the McKinsey consumer report we mentioned above, participants say they’re experiencing price increases across most or all of their expenses.

Consumers see price increases across all cateogies esp eating out, apparel, footwear and interest rates

Among the respondents, Millennials and Gen X said they are most likely to “scale back” their lifestyle and buy fewer products/services as a result of the cost of living crisis. The report also shows people are putting less money into savings and spending more on energy, transport, food and other essentials.

As a result, people are spending less money on non-essentials like eating out, jewellery, clothing and plenty more.

Spending on food and petrol increased sharply

We can see this reflected in the search data if we look at relative search volumes for non-essentials like restaurants, travel and clothing.

Google trends data for non essentials like restaurants, travel and clothes

The challenge for consumer brands during the cost of living crisis will be keeping up with purchase habits and understanding where people are spending their money. The Covid-19 pandemic showed how resilient the UK public can be during times of uncertainty, especially when it came to the more experiential kinds of non-essential purchases. Most notably, this includes the holiday season and early predictions suggest retail sales may only decline by 3% this Christmas, compared to spending last year.

Search data brings clarity during uncertain times

The Google report on searches getting more specific concludes with a section explaining “how search insights can help marketers in uncertain times”. It explains how you can use the Insights page in Google Ads to monitor search trends in real time and Google Trends to see how search interest changes over longer periods of time.

This is a topic we covered during the Covid-19 pandemic, showing how we used search insights to find new business opportunities for our customers and, even, pinpoint the most profitable location in the UK for them to open a new branch.

In a separate article, we also discussed how search data revealed some surprising business opportunities for companies during the height of lockdown. And there is also an interview with me on why search data is a marketer’s biggest asset.

The key takeaway from this is that search data gives marketers and companies a live view of how consumer trends are changing. This is great for maximising opportunities when things are going well but it’s even more important during times of uncertainty when you can’t afford to let any business opportunities escape your attention.

Are you making the most of your search data?

If you’re struggling to keep up with consumer demands or feel your data could be working harder for you, our data scientists and analytics experts can help. Call us on 023 9283 0281 or fill out this contact form to find out more about using data insights to inform key business decisions.

Chris Pitt profile picture
Chris Pitt

Chris is Managing Director at Vertical Leap and has over 25 years' experience in sales and marketing. He is a keynote speaker and frequent blogger, with a particular interest in intelligent automation and data analytics. In his spare time, he enjoys playing the guitar and is a stage manager at the Victorious Festival.

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