A friend was telling me about an interesting book he was reading titled “Everybody Lies”, which cites evidence of how people lie to each other, to pollsters, and to themselves. But one place they don’t lie is where they can be online and anonymous and no one is conducting a survey.
Two examples of such places are Amazon reviews and Google search data.
Here are two interesting looks at how some data analysis may have revealed alternative ways to track the trend in the number of COVID cases.
Yankee Candles Reviews
Terri Nelson, a Portland-based science illustrator, first suggested a potential correlation between the pandemic and negative candle reviews in a Nov. 24 tweet: “There are angry ladies all over Yankee Candle’s site reporting that none of the candles they just got had any smell at all,” she wrote.
The observation spurred Kate Petrova, a research assistant with the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College, to analyze about 20,000 Amazon reviews for scented and unscented candles as a personal research project.
She found reviews for the top-rated scented candles fell by about one full star rating in 2020 compared to prior years. Ms. Petrova did not find a similar trend for unscented candle reviews. The amount of scented candle reviews containing phrases like “can’t smell” or “no scent” increased from 2 percent in January to 6 percent in November.
The finding offers “strongly suggestive” evidence that Americans experiencing a loss of smell due to COVID-19 may be writing more negative candle reviews this year, according to the Post. However, Ms. Petrova said her analysis should be taken as “a fun exercise at data visualization — not a peer-reviewed study.”
Google Trends in Search Terms
Also in the second half of 2020, author Dan Sinker came across a correlation with some serious consequences. He compared Google searches for “loss of taste” in the United States with the number of coronavirus cases confirmed each day. Loss of taste and smell are, by now, recognized as common symptoms of infection with the novel coronavirus. Should someone lose one of those senses, it’s understandable why they’d head to Google to figure out what was happening. The correlation between the two seems as though it probably has a causal link.
So Washington Post reporter Philip Bump decided to explore whether there was a consistent relationship between searches for those terms (loss of taste, loss of smell) and COVID case totals nationally or in states. Using Google’s online Trends tool and The Washington Post’s coronavirus data set, he compared the two.
He writes: “Sometimes data analysis yields a truly stunning result. This was such a time.”
Bump refers to this as just a remarkable overlap. Except, of course, for that first spike. But he says that’s easily explained: The United States was barely doing any testing in March and April, as documented by the COVID Tracking Project. There were fewer confirmed cases back then because there were fewer conducted tests.
This seems to point to a fertile field of research to examine more closely online customer reviews and search trends.
But be warned – it may reveal more about us than we care to know.