Last fall, we took a look at how news organizations were approaching the question what to call the new influenza pandemic — “swine flu” or “H1N1”? Nine months into the outbreak, it’s time to revisit this debate, and this time we’re taking it to the streets — the virtual streets of Google search terms. Using Google Insights for Search, we can see how “H1N1” and “swine flu” have been trending over the last year.
And by a clear margin, swine flu is the winner and champion. Last April, when the outbreak first appeared in Mexico and the United States, “swine flu” dominated the public consciousness, news reports, and our Google searches. The huge volume of these early searches gives “swine flu” a substantial victory in total number of searches over time.
But by the chart below, you can see that “H1N1” picked up the pace and essentially pulled even once the initial wave of “swine flu” searches died down. And in recent months, as the second wave of the pandemic lessened, “H1N1″ is occasionally the more popular search term.
There are also geographic differences in the popularity of the two search terms. Below are maps for “swine flu” in red and “H1N1″ in blue. The darker the color, the more common the search. Between April 09 and January 2010, West Virgina, Utah and Maine produced the most searches for “swine flu”. During the same period, the upper Midwest led the way with the most “H1N1” searches.
Another interesting set of data to look at is the differences in related search terms. “Swine flu” searches have been more often associated to finding information about the symptoms. “H1N1″ searches, on the other hand, are more likely to be about vaccine information.
This kind of search data can provide an interesting window into both the rhetorical trends of media and how we talk about the pandemic. Perhaps we tend to use “H1N1” in more medical and scientific contexts –- the research, the pandemic data, and the vaccine. In contrast, “swine flu” may have been the choice in describing the illness, its traits, and the experiences of those who caught the flu.
You can do your own search term analysis at Google Insights for Search.