Google “New Cases” Search Study Regarding Coronavirus

Google screenshotThere’s a new conspiracy theory floating around social media about how you can do a Google search for any number between 2 – 4 digits, plus the words “new cases” and come up with a result regarding Coronavirus or “COVID-19” that matches that query with the same number you’ve randomly chosen. The theory roughly goes something like Google is a part of the Deep State and is manipulating results to show that nearly anything is now related to Coronavirus… that no matter what number you search there will be a match because Google is trying to inflate how severe the problem is.

I’ll be the first to raise my hand to showcase how flawed it is when Google’s algorithm is imperfect or manipulated like here, or here so please understand that I’m merely seeking to explain what’s happening – perfect or not. I have no dog in this fight. If you look at my social media feed you’ll find that I have not expressed any opinion about the medical information or statistics presented about Coronavirus, because I have no expertise in these fields. But now (*cracks knuckles) – NOW is my time to shine!

type in any 3 digit number then "new cases"Why Can I Type Any 2-4 Digit Number, Plus “New Cases” and Find Exact Results Regarding Coronavirus?

Here’s How

Google’s algorithm (secretive as it is) is made up of some elements that most experienced SEO people are familiar with: Relevancy, Timeliness and Authority (or credibility). These 3 elements are driving the results you see in Google search, here’s how:

Relevance

The reason you see articles and reports about any number of “new cases” of Coronavirus is primarily due to the high relevance of Coronavirus at this moment in time. Google updates their algorithm hundreds of times per year to adjust for relevancy to things that are happening in the world, or locally. They need to constantly capture what people are wanting to find, or what they’re intending to search for so people will continue to use Google. Often times their algorithm has to make an educated guess (we see this all the time with predictive search suggestions). It actually works a lot like the human brain.

Think about this: if you walk up to a random stranger right now and say a random number plus “new cases” like “87 new cases” their first question would NOT be “New cases of what?“, it would be “Where“? That is the assumption that Google’s algorithm is making. Google is assuming you already know “what” and now your trying to get more information about the 87 new cases.

Timeliness

Another element of Google’s algorithm is timeliness, based on their Caffeine update in 2010, meaning – is what you’re searching and what Google is delivering a result of something that is happening at this moment in time. For instance, right now if you were to type “87 new cases” and Google delivered a bunch of results from news stories about the SARS epidemic from the early 2000’s, you’d strongly question how current those results are. You might even question how accurate Google is at delivering timely results, thus potentially making you less likely to use Google in the future to find timely information.

Authority

The reason you’re seeing mostly news websites (or video reports) when you type something like a random number + new cases is because of the authority of the website that information is on. News websites often get links to their website from a wide variety of other websites, mostly because website owners (like myself) link to news websites as a credible source of information in articles or blogs that they’re writing. This raises the authority (or credibility) of a website in Google’s algorithm. So when a news website anywhere in the world writes a story about “87 new cases” that is A) relevant to what’s happening (Coronavirus), B) timely and C) authoritative that means there’s a high likelihood that this article will appear at the top of results when you’ve searched that query.

Here’s Why

‘But Doug, there’s no way there can ALWAYS be a result that matches the number I’ve chosen’. Yes, there is and you’re wrong… here’s why.

  • Statista estimates that as of 2019 there are somewhere around 1.7 Billion websites world wide, that’s 1,700,000,000 websites. I’ve seen some current estimates of nearly 2 billion.
  • Since every country globally has had Coronavirus cases, every news outlet and many bloggers around the world have had some content on their website about the most recent number of cases. It’s a long established tactic in SEO to include numbers in the Title Tag (or Headline) of an article because Users often click through at a higher rate when they see numbers in search results, here’s a Quora Q&A to explain. That’s hundreds of thousands of websites (probably millions of websites) around the world reporting on the numbers of new cases near them. They’re all bound to have different numbers, not yet achieving 5 digits.
  • The primary news stories since February have been in regards to Coronavirus. The only topic that has interrupted this was the George Floyd protests. Coincidentally, if you simply type “was looted” into a Google search you’re likely to see a news story about a store that was looted due the most recent protests… not stories from stores that were looted from the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles from the 90s (that’s because there’s no timeliness connection to what’s happening today).
  • We’re now in a situation that news websites and blogs are publishing content every time there’s an update to Coronavirus cases, and Google delivers high authority websites with timely & relevant information. Voilà.

If the premise is that you can type any number from 1 to 4 digits into a Google search plus “new cases” and arrive at an exact number match (or near match) article regarding COVID-19 because Google is manipulating, the reality is because there’s only 9,999 available inputs & variations using this 1 – 4 digit rule. Out of 1,700,000,000 websites and given the information above it would be a statistical impossibility for you NOT to see every numeric variation have a match at the top of results or a “near match” regarding Coronavirus.

Google Trends

If you go to Google Trends and type the words “new cases” you’ll see that Google Users started to heavily search using this phrase in late February of 2020, prior to that this search phrase was hardly used at all by comparison. This means that with those billions of searches driving up the volume for that phrase, Google was learning what people were looking for, what sites they clicked on, what sites they abandoned, how long they stayed on those websites, and what they searched after they visited those websites. This taught Google very quickly what most people are looking for when they use the “new cases” phrase – Coronavirus information.

Google Trends "new cases"

The Proof is in The Algorithm

Take a look at the screenshot below where I’ve searched “1387 new cases” into a Google search. In this instance, Google has delivered the most authoritative website as the #1 result which is a Government (.Gov) website but has nothing to do with Coronavirus. The #2 result is an article from a far less authoritative news website that discusses Coronavirus cases. Bolded by Google, and underlined in red by me, you can see that both websites contain the words, “1387”, “new” and “cases” but neither has strung together “1387 new cases” as an actual phrase, so Google is defaulting to giving ranking preference to the website with more authority. In this example, if the WTOL.com website were to update the Title of the article and include a phrase “1387 new cases” within the content they would almost certainly overtake the #1 position because timeliness and relevancy would likely be more important than website authority. *Note: There’s also a chance that if this article gets some backlinks it might enter page 1 of results or even overtake the #1 position for the phrase “1387 new cases” because its an exact match phrase on an authoritative website discussing Coronavirus cases, and there might not be any other more authoritative websites discussing that exact number and context.

Google screenshot 1387 cases

*Update June 24 – This Website is Now on Page 2 of Google for the Phrase “1387 new cases”

Less than 24 hours after the original publication of this article, this post has now made it’s way to page 2 of search results for the phrase “1387 new cases”. Am I surprised by this? No. Because that’s how Google’s algorithm works. Equally, I wouldn’t be surprised if this article either A) makes it to page 1 of results, or B) leaves the top 10 pages completely after Google learns that it’s not relevant for the intended search. Because that’s how Google’s algorithm works.

1387 new cases

*Update June 25 – This Website is Now on Page 1 of Google for the Phrase “1387 new cases”

Google screenshot

*Update June 26 – This Website is Now #6 on Page 1 of Google for the Phrase “1387 new cases”

This will be my final update unless something out of the ordinary happens, but after 3 days this website made it to the middle of Page 1 of google results for the “1387 new cases” phrase (see screenshot below). What does that prove? Well to anyone who knows how search engine optimization works it’s absolutely nothing surprising, because there’s not 100 websites trying to rank on page 1 for that phrase. It’s the lack of relevant, timely & authoritative competition that makes it possible. As reader “Bernard” pointed out in the comments below:

“You keep mentioning ‘millions of websites’, as if there’s some huuuuuuuuuge pool of obscure sites out there build to generate traffic with random numbers of covid cases. That’s not the case. The results are pretty much uniformly very well known and established newspapers and magazines, along with local news websites from stations owned by the big 3. I would say that greatly reduces the likelihood that your explanation is going to stand up under examination.
*See reply in comments section.

I hope Bernard is reading, because what this does prove is that an obscure website can get into page 1 of results, if it meets Relevancy, Timeliness and Authority. You can see below that this article is positioned right below CNBC.com at this moment in time and I am not a “big 3” network. To some, it might seem that given this information my website is as authoritative as CNBC, but that is also very wrong. All around the world there are far more authoritative websites than mine, who’s content is more relevant to news, health, medicine etc. and that’s why their websites are one page 1 for other searches.

Google results page 1

*Update June 30 – This Website is Now #1 for the Phrase “1387 new cases”

Am I now apart of the Deep State? Where do I get my Deep State compensation check?

google coronavirus conspiracy theory

This clip from Star Wars explains it perfectly.

Conclusion

Google’s algorithm is only strange if you don’t understand how it works. To the person who’s never seen electricity work, a light bulb might look like magic or deception. Even those of us who think we know how Google’s algorithm works sometimes get it wrong. The last thing Google wants a User to do is be disappointed in the search results and have to retype a phrase over and over again using variations to find what they want. If that were to happen constantly you might start using Bing (heaven forbid). That also means that if a new pandemic of another name were to suddenly take off you’d start to see results for those cases instead of Coronavirus.

About The Author

Doug Bradley
Doug Bradley
I work with law firms to increase their presence on search engines through website optimization. Marketing a law firm hasn’t been “like it used to be” for a while now and the only guarantee is that it will continue to change. Learn more about my experience here.

23 Comments

  • Joel on June 24, 2020

    Sorry, you’ve done a great job at obfuscation and strawmanning, whether intentionally or not.

    The number of websites don’t matter. What matters is the astronomical odds of there being identical case numbers for example 758, all having that exact number of cases, is just not possible. The odds for this occurrence are very very low. And they get even lower when this happens with other numbers.

    The cases should be random between any given day, any given location.

    The number of times people searched for new cases is also irrelevant.

    What we’re actually looking at is a weaponization and extension of Google Optimize, adjusting organic headlines, results….even the body content.

    You actually believe, North Carolina, Ukraine, Virginia, New York, and Afghanistan, all had 758 nee cases on any given day in the last month?

    Bullllllll Sh*t

    • Doug Bradley on June 24, 2020

      Joel, You said that “The number of websites don’t matter” and then specifically asked “what are the astronomical odds…”, the number of websites absolutely matter because that’s the only way you’ll appreciate the odds are VERY high. The reason is this, all of the following categories of websites are reporting on new cases in one way or another: News & Media, Lifestyle blogs, Business Websites, Health websites, Government agencies at the state and local level, Federal & state health organizations… That’s probably 20-30% or more of all websites right there (just a guess). Multiple websites will be reporting “identical case numbers” and close to identical numbers because they’re ALL receiving updated information and reporting at different points in time, at different places around the world. So what is “758 new cases” in Ukraine on June 17th, might have been “758 new cases” in North Carolina on May 22nd (to use your example). Not only is it possible, it would actually be strange if we didn’t see this.

    • Michael on June 25, 2020

      We can do some quick math to see just how statistically likely it is that North Carolina, Ukraine, Virginia, New York, and Afghanistan all exhibited the same new case counts on any given day in the last month.

      Last month there were 31 days. That means every region will report a number between 0 and 9,999 new case counts. If we just consider the 195 countries in the world that’s 195 * 31 = 6,045 exhibited values for the month of May. First let’s understand the probability that 2 countries exhibit the same value. We know the chance that any two randomly selected values won’t match is 99.99% (only 1 out of 10,000 possible values will amount to a match), but we have 6,045 values to make comparisons between. This means we have 18,267,990 total comparisons and all of them have to avoid the 0.01% probability that a match occurs. The probability that this happens is so insanely close to zero it is a statistical impossibility. So the likelihood that 2 countries share the same value is 100%.

      To extend this scenario to the likelihood that 5 countries share the same number is very difficult to do exactly, but we can take a shortcut by using the Poisson approximation. Doing so results in a probability of 99.88%! If you want to see the result yourself type “1-exp(-((6045 choose 5) / 10000^4))” into Google.

      Of course this was very quick math that made seriously large oversimplifications and assumptions. It’s definitely not the case that the probability of seeing 10 new cases will be the same as the probability of seeing 9,000 new cases. It’s also not the case that every country has yet to even see 1,000 cases. But we also only considered countries. This means every country, state, national subdivision, city, town, sovereign entity, federation, country, or really any imaginable region such as the state’s meat packing plant each has 31 opportunities to exhibit one of 10,000 possible values. The math is definitely incomplete and also a little wrong, but you’re taking millions and millions and millions of opportunities and claiming an admittedly small probability of 0.01% simply won’t ever happen. The incredibly large sample size wins out, and when you correct the math it will still win out, unless you can argue the probability should be *even more astronomically smaller*. So to answer your question: it would be “Bullllllll Sh*t” if someone tried to tell me it *didn’t* happen.

      We’re also talking about new case counts. That metric is the most immediately recognizable and effortlessly maintainable coronavirus progression metric. How many websites report the R_0 value? Would you recognize it if they did? How difficult is it to maintain the R_0 calculation every day of the month? Other metrics (far better metrics) exist to determine how serious the coronavirus situation is, but someone doing a quick google search isn’t trying to understand the epidemiological complexities of the coronavirus.

      Epidemiologists have been warning us for years that the next pandemic is going to happen to a virus that looks exactly like the coronavirus. And then it happened. Why does it *have* to be something more?

      • Doug Bradley on June 26, 2020

        What he said ^

    • Alice on July 1, 2020

      Not only that, imagine how long it would take to write 2 million articles. No way that “Kansas” put out a NEW report that became a news article for EVERY single “New Case.”

      • Doug Bradley on July 1, 2020

        Hey Alice, thanks for your comment. I think what Joel and other people are suggesting is that either Google and/or news agencies are “stacking the deck” to make sure a relevant article is always there. I’ve even heard the theory that articles are being automatically generated (or dynamically inserted in real time) so that anything that you search will always deliver a result regarding Coronavirus. Even with the evidence I’ve provided, and squashing that suggestion in my response to Robert Barton below, there will always be people who want to believe that the unprovable is true and that the proof to the contrary is fatally flawed.

        • Alice on July 1, 2020

          Most likely, it is no more than 200 pre-written articles with an algorithm… it just puts whatever number you type into it.

  • Bernard Dunning on June 24, 2020

    You keep mentioning ‘millions of websites’, as if there’s some huuuuuuuuuge pool of obscure sites out there build to generate traffic with random numbers of covid cases. That’s not the case. The results are pretty much uniformly very well known and established newspapers and magazines, along with local news websites from stations owned by the big 3. I would say that greatly reduces the likelihood that your explanation is going to stand up under examination.

    • Doug Bradley on June 24, 2020

      Hey Bernard, actually you are very incorrect. There are quite literally millions (hundreds of millions actually) of obscure websites all around the world (thus the name World Wide Web), and as I’ve mentioned a large portion of them are news, lifestyle, health and other categories that have content published about Coronavirus and the new cases relevant to their geography at a given time. I never suggested that any of them were built with the sole purpose of generating content with random numbers of cases, they are real websites reporting cases at a particular moment in time so the reports will be scattered across numerous domains. Yes, there may be the big 3 Network affiliates reporting on their own websites… that’s how this all works. Take this website for example, it’s a pretty obscure website and it has absolutely nothing to do with health, medicine or Coronavirus. So how is it appearing on page 2 of Google when you search “1387 new cases”? Check back in a week and it might be on page 1. As to my explanation standing up over time… there is absolutely no expert in the field of Search Engine Optimization who will tell me I’m wrong.

  • Peter on June 24, 2020

    It is obvious that the phrase new cases would direct bus to Covid19 – and the astronomical amount of reporting – that’s is all correct.

    BUT and article does not address what is the statistical possibilities that every number is covered.

    That is question / I don’t the answer to that question? With the number of cases reported worldwide ( reporting of ‘cases’ – oddly useless information) being admittedly high – The Question is What is the statistical likelihood that every number is covered.

    • Doug Bradley on June 24, 2020

      Hi Peter,
      You are right, the article does not cover what the statistical possibilities would be that every number is represented. I am not a statistician, and I am not equipped with the wherewithal and time to embark on such a journey. I also imagine that whatever answer I provided would likely be met with the same level of skepticism. However, your premise is flawed from the start because every number is absolutely NOT covered. For example, (the first one I found in about 30 seconds) when you search “1450 new cases” we currently get a #1 result from WHTC.com, however that website is not reporting on 1,450 new Coronavirus cases, BUT it has the number 1450 in the content of the page (in reference to an AM radio station). That’s because there are NO websites that have reported exactly 1,450 “new cases” and as stated in the article, when a User types the phrase “new cases” Google is trying to come as close as possible to deliver relevant results because they’re assuming at this moment in time the User is looking for Coronavirus information. Again, this is the algorithm taking over. The alternative would be that Google deliver a “Results Not Found” screen which they generally don’t do for a search like this (a non-Boolean search without operators). Their job in this circumstance is to try to get as close as possible. If you’d like to run 9,999 Google searches and analyze which ones are actually reporting on an exact match of cases, vs those that are being delivered because they have that number within their content, and then do some statistical & probability analysis that somehow accounts for variations in IP address, mobile vs desktop, and other search parameters I’d be happy to link to your research/answer as a well-researched rebuttal, or if there is someone who has done this please let me know.

  • Peter on June 24, 2020

    I read that part in your article about google assist to get close. I understand that I am a title searcher have search many thousands of addresses. Often I receive requests for addresses that don’t exist. If I use google Maps it will try and satisfy my request by approximating the location. Consequently I rarely use it and rely upon municipal GIS programs which will confirm whether or not an address exits.

    Having said that I checked this out earlier today and went into about a dozen articles and each also had the numbers in the article which would suggest they are correct but as one person above stated where one number it came up in 3 locations around the world within days.

    I obviously am not a ‘believer’ – Covid19 exists – my wife and I have had it and it was no fun – I am not a believer in the lockdown. In fact my position is the measures taken have made the health problem in fact worse. Lack of emergency service – heart- may kill my father. Further I know senior people in hospitals who have told me straight up this thing is overblown in as much it’s in keeping with seasonal numbers.

    Correct it would require reading each article see if in fact all #’s are represented and then I image calculating the likelihood of 1 to whatever is covered in the total number of case outbreaks.

    But that then calls into question the reporting not Covid19. Not worth it.

    Thanks

    • Doug Bradley on June 25, 2020

      Hi Peter, I think you and I have probably found some common ground. I too have known of extended family and friends who’ve had friends and family die specifically due to COVID-19. I personally know of some elderly people who got it and survived; I also know from personal experience that some hospitals near me have been completely empty when I went in (or other family members). I also have my issues with the media and reporting standards. However, setting that anecdotal information aside, this article is specifically about how Google’s algorithm works. I’m telling you from someone who does this for a living, works in Google search for 10-12 hours a day, gets websites to page 1 for competitive search phrases – their algorithm as of this moment is working as I’ve seen it do for over 10 years. Additionally, we can see similar results in Bing and DuckDuckGo search engines – because they have similar algorithms.

  • robert g barton on June 24, 2020

    Or maybe they’re just stacking the numbers.

    • Doug Bradley on June 25, 2020

      Robert, Is it technically possible? Well I will concede that Google has the resources to do pretty much anything they’d want on their index. However, you’d also have to believe the following for that to be true: thousands of Google employees are in on it, hundreds or thousands of Google’s subcontractors are in on it, Bing is in on it, Yahoo is in on it, DuckDuckGo is in on it, news websites are in on it, private bloggers are in on it, business websites are in on it… all around the world. If you do believe that, you’d also have to believe that Google also controls the “Wayback Machine” – the website that keeps a pretty reliable record of websites and how they appeared on a given date in time. If you believe that, then you’d also have to believe that Google has gone in and planted indexed images into the Wayback Machine to simulate a screenshot of a credible & realistic website over each website’s history. If you believe ALL of that is possible, then my question would be why would all of that effort go into this? Even if you could answer that, you’d also then have to believe that Google would risk their entire business for that purpose – because they would essentially be shut down if it could be proven because no one would continue to use their search engine, and there would be no market for their ads.

  • Brian Malone on June 26, 2020

    Hi – very interesting article. Thank you for explaining some of the high points of SEO. I heard about the ” xxx new cases ” and was amazed that there were reputable websites in the results – my assumption was someone made a webbot to churn out robonews stories for every number from 1 to 9999. I made the assumption that there could have been every number of case reported between 1 and 9999 – but as you point out with the sheer number of websites and the number of days we have been in Covid mode, yes it is possible to have covered all 2 to 4 digit numbers. Great article and good luck with your core business!

    • Doug Bradley on June 26, 2020

      Hey Brian, I recognize that you were confused about something, went to the Internet to find an answer, and that after you learned about what was happening it made more sense. Thank you for that.

  • Duncan Bell on June 26, 2020

    Great job breaking down the misunderstandings surrounding this meme.

    • Doug Bradley on June 26, 2020

      Thanks Duncan, I appreciate the thumbs up!

  • Megan on June 29, 2020

    Agreed. I fell prey to this unfortunately and made a post on facebook…I was swiftly called out for being a hypocrite because I do usually research at least 5 cites or more about a topic, but this truly alarmed me! Then, 2 guys who wanted to make sure to shame me explained it in about one sentence…I sort of understood, but not really, and I don’t think they wanted me to. I did mention, which you also did in the beginning of this article, that it is deceptive for people who don’t understand this…even sometimes when you do! They kept berating me and asking how it could possibly be deceptive…sigh. Anyway, I appreciated the thorough explanation *with visual aids and I will be posting this right under them as an example of how you should explain things to people if they don’t understand, assuming you don’t want to piss everyone off and make yourself look like a jerk! But, I do think google should perhaps have a disclaimer or something of the sort explaining how it works because I would bet that a large majority of people also have no clue, and would still be slightly confused after the explanation. Seems like that would benefit them by offering transparency which would hopefully deter people like myself from getting a bit spooked! Thanks again!

    • Doug Bradley on June 30, 2020

      Hey Megan,
      Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately there will always be people who will swoop in and pounce on someone who doesn’t understand something. Google won’t really be transparent about how they rank websites – it’s kind of like the Coke recipe. Additionally, their algorithm changes regularly so it might be outdated information within 24 hours. Even if Google did attempt to explain this particular circumstance, I doubt any “Deep Staters” would believe them.

  • Daniel Rice on July 1, 2020

    Good article explaining this. Some inaccuracies though. If a stranger walks up to me and says “87 new cases” my first question WILL be “of what?” Not “where.” I need to know WHAT we are Talking about before I care where. Are they talking jewelry, cases, cases of apples, cases of cars being stolen, etc.

    • Doug Bradley on July 1, 2020

      Hey Daniel, you may be right… it was a bit of an oversimplification to illustrate the assumptions that Google has to make based on a simple search that lacks context like “87 new cases”. I think the majority of people I know would likely assume I’m referring to COVID-19 cases, not 87 new cases of apples. However, if we were working on a fruit & produce loading dock that might be different. Context matters – in real life and in Google search. Without context, Google’s algorithm has to make adjustments & assumptions on what people are intending to search based on their database of what people searched, what websites they clicked, and how long they stayed on a website when they do a search lacking proper context like “87 new cases”. Thanks for your comment!

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