Gov. Jerry Brown, Starbucks and Tom Selleck drove the nationwide curiosity and concern over California’s fourth year of dreadful drought conditions, according to a survey of billions of online search engine records.
At The Times’ request, researchers at Bing recently dove further into the company’s search data and came away with a notable finding: Declarations by the California governor and Starbucks coincided with big increases in people looking for more information about the drought. As people heard about Selleck being fined for siphoning water, interest continued to stay high.
“Drought was a topic throughout the year, but there were four months that saw heavy search volume: April and May and then July and August,” said Bing’s Matthew Quinlan.
Specifically, Brown’s imposition in April of a mandatory 25% cutback in statewide water usage “switched people onto the issue,” Quinlan said, with search interest peaking the day after the order. Starbucks’ May announcement that it would suspend bottled water production in California moved the drought to the “top of people’s consciousness” and timed with another peak in search traffic, he said. Interest waned for a little bit until the actor Selleck got caught in July for ordering truckloads of water to be illegally delivered to his Hidden Valley ranch.
Wildfire-related search queries showed a similar pattern. The biggest peak in searching came in September after the Valley Fire in Lake County terrorized the region enough to prompt Brown to order a state of emergency. Ultimately, the devastation led wildfire-related search activity to be five times greater this September than last. Smaller fires in the months prior had led to smaller spikes.
Bing’s findings could be important to many. Microsoft analyzes search data to help with investment decisions. For instance, high interest in sports and entertainment content has led it (and Google) to create special search result pages for answers to queries on those topics. Bing’s planning to do the same as 2016 presidential election searches escalate.
But the data about drought and wildfire could additionally help government officials and corporate marketers.
“Anytime Gov. Brown makes an announcement, queries spike,” Quinlan said. “Given these declarations and statements drive people to search more, it’s a good time to put more actionable information on consumer websites.”
Days of big pronouncements also could be good time for advertisers to hawk water-saving technology or political measures related to the drought in online ads. Of course, that can be difficult because many major ad campaigns are planned well in advance.
Quinlan said big news stories seem to spur searchers into action mode. When they turn to Bing, they want to know, how does what they’re hearing about affect them: Do I need to evacuate? How can I help victims? What are the rules for water usage? How do I avoid fines? How do I report water wasters?
To the extent online publishers can answer those questions well, they could benefit from increased traffic during these events.
Environmental protection groups, for instance, should “harness the public energy” around big drought moments by directing people toward actions they can take to deal with it, said Lisa Benenson, chief communications officer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This threatens to impact people’s homes and faucets in a real way,” she said. That drives searching for solutions.
Bing was able to determine popular search terms by devising broad categories and then having software automatically determine related terms that fit under them. The analysis program scours anonymized search history logs and tallies related terms. The company tossed out obscure queries.
Among the other findings
--In the “drought and water” category, the most popular search was “California drought.” The next big variations were “starbucks california water,” “california farmers water rights,” “california drought fines” and “lake mead ghosttown.”
--Beyond the top five, Quinlan noted an increase in queries looking for association between climate change and the drought, the Sierra Nevada snowpack and the drought and drought shaming (publicly calling out water wasters). People clearly wanted to know what was causing the drought and who was being screwed by it, Quinlan said.
--The biggest interest in drought and water topics came from searchers across the Western U.S., led by Seattle, Los Angeles and Houston. For wildfires, Los Angeles and Sacramento topped the list. The data were not weighted for population.
--Drought-related search activity was highest in summer 2014. But this year saw far more full-year interest than last year.
“It’s no low bar to make the top 10 list,” Quinlan said. “To break through, this was a major story for everyone this year.” Ahead of droughts as far as news topics of interest to U.S. users were the European migrant crisis, Islamic State and the earthquake in Nepal. Google’s 2015 data included many similar topics of interest.
What could make the list next year? It seems safe to bet on El Niño. Search activity for the weather phenomenon that could bring extremely wet weather to California is already taking off, Bing said. With big run-ups in July and August, searches for “El Niño” are about 2-½ times greater in the second half of this year than the same period last year.
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