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What’s the link between socio-economic well-being and online search behavior?

Internet users from nations enjoying a higher GDP (per capita gross domestic product) are much more likely to conduct online search for information related to the future than that about the past events, a new quantitative analysis of sample Google search queries has established. The interesting findings, published in the Scientific Reports journal, suggest that there is a definite link between online behavior of the people and real-world economic parameters.

The team of four experts behind the offbeat albeit insightful study has produced some curious results. Helen Susannah Moat, Tobias Preis, Steven R. Bishop, and H. Eugene Stanley closely examined and analyzed a cross-section of search queries by Internet users across 45 different countries. The idea was to calculate the overall ratio of the volume of specific searches for the coming year to the volume of searches done for the previous year/s, which they termed the ‘future orientation index’.

When the researchers compared the two search indices – past and future to the relative per-capita wealth of each nation, they found that a strong correlation existed. Russia, for instance, with a higher GDP per capita denoted a superior ‘future orientation index’. Also, higher up the hierarchy were nations like Italy, France and Germany.

Futuristic search and economic success

According to the experts, this relationship between GDP and search activity focused on the future may be one of the aspects that can lead to economic success. The UCL (University College London) research associate (Department of Mathematics), Helen Susannah Moat, explained the findings of the study as follows:

“The Internet is fast becoming more deeply interwoven into the complex fabric of global society. Our usage of this very gigantic information resource is resulting in vast amounts of data on our current concerns and interests. We were interested in knowing whether we could locate subtle cross-country differences in certain basics of online search behavior that could be linked to socio-economic wellbeing and related real world indicators, such as per capita GDP.”

For this, the research team collated search volume data on the Google Trends website, and deeply analyzed over 45 billion search queries worldwide. It saw two palpable explanations for the relationship between GDP and search activity. Firstly, the findings reflected differences, as stated above, in apparent attention to the past and the future, where a focus ahead supported economic success. Secondly, they might reflect differences in the type of information surfed online, owing to economic influences on internet infrastructure available.

Data analysis to understand broader behavior of society

The mathematics professor at UCL, Steven Bishop, who has co-authored the study, is also coordinating a major European project, to find out how such data can be use for understanding the complex behavior of society. The FuturICT project focuses on the new evolving dynamics of social interactions in the backdrop of global technological networking juxtaposed with the catastrophes like the recent financial crisis, which can arise, as well the opportunities provided by an increasing connectivity.