Google’s data shows the overall volume of searches for a given topic, relative to its peak. In the case of “recession,” searches peaked in January 2008, just after the start of the last recession. If “recession” searches in January 2008 were a 100, searches in December of this year have so far topped out at a 34. That means current interest in “recession” as a topic is about one-third of what it was in January 2008. The last time there were this many searches was in November 2009, which scored a 35.
The trend line above shows small spikes in “recession” searches in 2010 and 2011. Those were driven primarily by fears in the early Obama years of a double-dip recession that fortunately never materialized. The current volume of “recession” searches is greater than it was at either of those two points.
It’s worth pointing out that December isn’t over yet, so this month’s figures are subject to change upward or downward, depending on what happens between now and the end of the year.
Google also provides information on related search queries, which gives us a sense of what else people are looking for when they search for recession information. As of this moment, “Steven Mnuchin” is one of the fastest-rising recession-related search terms over the past seven days, owing to the unusual statement on the health of the financial system that the treasury secretary issued yesterday. “Bear market,” “fb [Facebook] stock” and “fed rate hike” are some of the other fast-rising related terms.
For recession-watchers, however, the most significant signal in the data remains the sheer volume of searches. That indicates more widespread concern over the possibility of a recession. On some level, these concerns are self-fulfilling: Americans worried about the possibility of a recession may cut back on their spending and investing, which could cause markets to contract and employers to cut back on hiring, which could cause greater worry about the possibility of a recession, perpetuating a cycle.
If there’s one bright spot in the Google data, it’s this: In absolute terms, the overall number of searches remains relatively small. We can roughly infer this by comparing “recession” searches with searches for another known quantity that’s popular enough to assume widespread popular interest: Kim Kardashian, for instance. At the moment, the search volume for “recession” is only about one quarter the volume of searches for Kim Kardashian. We might say that recession interest stands at 0.25 KimKs.
Back in January 2008, at the height of the last recession, recession interest peaked at about 0.89 KimKs. So we are well below the historic KimK threshold indicating peak recession interest.