Financial Uncertainty & eCommerce – Search Intent In A Recession

Image of person with a piggy bank and open wallet.

The last few years have been pretty tough for everyone. 

We have all had the pandemic to deal with. But since then lots of factors worldwide seem to be pushing us towards more tough times. Specifically a global recession. 

The leading economic indicators do not make good reading. Global growth is slowing, energy and food prices are skyrocketing and the aftermath of lockdowns is still being felt. With expected to post negative Q2 results soon, with the Euro zone to follow in Q4, things are tough. 

Search intent on Google, by far the world’s biggest search engine, reflects the uncertainty that people all over the world feel. This in itself is a huge shift in consumer behavior and it suggests that there could be huge effects on the digital purchase funnel for eCommerce businesses.

We have taken a look at different types of queries to see what people are searching for, how that affects brands and what they can do about it.

Let’s try to divine a little bit of action out of uncertainty…

Photo by micheile dot com on Unsplash

Search Intent – Financial Queries

We looked at several financial/financial service queries using Google Trends. The data comes from worldwide searches of specific queries and, where stated, broader topics. This distinction matters as topics and queries are measured differently in Google Trends.

Google Trends also indexes its data to a maximum “score” of 100. A score of 100 denotes the maximum search interest for the query, time and location selected.

Best Credit Cards

Search intent image from Google Trends for the query "best credit cards".

Worldwide, searches for the term “best credit card” remained stable throughout most of 2021 and even early 2022. But it has increased in May and June 2022 and that increase was not just in territories like the U.S.A and U.K. that have high numbers of households with credit cards. This increase happened worldwide, but in terms of region it is seen more strongly in western Europe, the USA plus central and latin America.

As inflation begins to bite many households may be looking to switch credit cards to both get better rates, increase credit limits and/or bounce cards to keep their head above water.

In Asia and SEA the picture is different but the interest remains. Though the availability of credit cards through banks is different and not as pervasive. In Thailand searches for the term “best credit cards” were higher in 2021, possibly due to lockdowns and the loss of income they brought for many people.

Search intent from Google Trends for the term "best credit cards" for Thailand.

From looking at the “best credit cards” query for Thailand it’s clear that many people look into acquiring or changing their credit cards in times of crisis (like the pandemic). Or when cost of living/inflation become factors in their daily lives. The query was less popular in 2022, with a few new recent peaks.

Let’s move on to the next financial query that illustrates search intent.

How Much Money Should You Save Each Month

Search intent from Google Trends for the term "how much money should you save each month".

As you can see from the trends graph above (though it is incomplete), interest in savings has really surged in June 2022. This is another solid indicator of changing consumer behavior. 

But this surge in search intent, for this query, is driven by users in the USA. What about equivalent queries in other regions and in other languages?

Here are some Thai language queries with the intent on “saving money”.

Search intent from Google Trends for "save money" terms in Thai.

The above are all search terms in Thai around the topic of “saving money” with the same timeframe as the “how much money should you save each month” query in English.

Some interesting search intent trends are on display here for 2022. Interest jumped at the beginning of the year in January which is not uncommon for financial terms as people tend to look at the financial positions at the beginning of each year. So could this be just seasonal rather than in response to the current cost of living crisis?

Search intent from Google Trends for "save money" terms in Thai over the last 5 years.

As we can see above there is some seasonality but there were three sharp increases in overall volume. At the end of October/beginning of November 2019 interest in all these related terms reached their first peak. This may be related to local economic conditions in Thailand that were in the news at the time.

The second peak was in January 2021. January 2021 saw a second wave of COVID-19 restrictions in Thailand. It was the beginning of another (and longer) economic shutdown. This peak in query volume is far higher than in 2019, which could illustrate the concerns of people at the time. General volume through the whole of 2021 was higher for these terms too. Again this could show changing financial circumstances for Thai Google users.

In January 2022 there is another peak, though much lower than the two previous highs and general volume for these “save money” terms has dipped below 2021 levels. This could be a return to seasonality rather than responding to a crisis. But with volumes creeping up again in June, we may start to shift back to 2021 in consumer attitudes to “saving money”.

What Does It Mean?

So worldwide we are seeing higher volumes for financial queries. Not surprising in a cost of living crisis, but it shows a point that is worth remembering for eCommerce brands. 

We do not live in silos. 

Data such as this shows that people rapidly reassess financial priorities when they think they are in, or about to enter, a crisis. If you sell financial products, this is a time where increased marketing spend will be very fruitful. But if you sell high end consumer products, you may want to optimize your marketing spend more carefully.

Image of petrol station to illustrate cost of living.
Photo by Juan Fernandez on Unsplash

Search Intent – Cost Of Living Queries

Reassessing finances is only one part of how consumers deal with large scale external crises. They also look carefully at day-to-day spending. With food and fuel prices leading the news agenda around the world, it’s time to take a look at how consumers are using Google to look into cost of living issues.

Fuel Prices Vs Food Prices

Search intent from Google Trends for "fuel prices" and "food prices" terms.

In 2021, queries worldwide for both food prices and fuel prices were almost even in terms of volume.

This all changed in February 2022.

Volumes for the fuel price query were building up with the beginning of a sharp upward trend occurring in the week of February 20th to 26th 2022.

This is the time period where Russia invaded Ukraine.

Possible fuel price rises as a consequence of this war were very much on the news agenda at that time. While the war is not the only reason fuel prices went up (the reopening economy increased fuel demand from pandemic lows), it did cause a dramatic upward price spike which caused a shift in consumer confidence.

This has caused a ripple in related terms such as “cars with best gas mileage”. Which, if you sell cars, should tell you a lot about the new priorities consumers have.

Search intent from Google Trends for "food prices" terms in Thailand.

Food prices as a query, on the other hand, have not yet seen dramatic spikes globally. But they are a factor in different regions. The graph above shows rapid movement for this topic in Thailand, showing that food prices are increasing concern to consumers. In India, more Google users are searching about food prices than fuel prices right now, which is different to most other regions. In the USA, it is almost even.

Let’s look at cost of living type queries by comparing a few staple foods, to get a better picture.

Price of Eggs vs Price of Bread vs Price of Rice vs Price of Coffee

Search intent from Google Trends for "Price of Eggs vs Price of Bread vs Price of Rice vs Price of Coffee" terms.

Worldwide, there are interesting peaks and troughs for these terms over the last 12 months. The price of coffee, for example, in September to October 2021 saw a huge spike in consumer interest. This is because the coffee price per lb reached record highs at that time. But volume for the price of coffee query did not really revert back to “normal”. It went up and down right up until very recently. Trends for this query will, in all likelihood, go up and up due to climate related issues in Brazil

The real fluctuations in the search volumes for all of these staples can really be seen by region. Obviously different parts of the world eat, for example, more rice than others. But the fact there is volume for these queries throughout the world indicates macroeconomic consumer concern. Which is bad news for companies that sell non-essential goods.

Person with credit card using a laptop to illustrate eCommerce.
Photo by on Unsplash

Search Intent – eCommerce Queries In 2021 & 2022

So we know that everyone is concerned about the cost of living and their financial position. But how does that affect eCommerce?

We will look at a few core ecommerce queries and topics to see if search volume has fluctuated in 2022 compared to last year. We will split these into pre-purchase queries and general generic search queries around core goods (clothes specifically).


Search intent from Google Trends for "discounts" terms.

“Discounts” is a solid generic query in eCommerce that crosses regional differences. There are a few peaks in 2021 but a solid general upward trend in 2022. 

In times of financial crisis, search queries with price qualifiers can become more popular. If a person wants to buy a pair of jeans, for example, they may use terms like “cheap jeans” or “best jeans offers”. This can increase the amount of time the user spends in the “messy middle”

In short, the user spends a longer time in the research phase before purchase.

This can mean that an eCommerce company has to cover more touchpoints and keywords in search to get a conversion.

Mens Clothes vs Womens Clothes

Search intent from Google Trends for "mens clothes" and "womens clothes" terms.

In the clothing space there is not much recent change for generic terms like “mens clothes” and “womens clothes”. The peaks seen in the chart above are more in line with seasonal trends, driven by the holidays. It is possible that inflationary concerns among customers have not touched fashion just yet, but over the next quarter some movement might be seen here.

Image with decide, commit, repeat written with wooden scrabble tiles.
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Search Intent Lessons & Actions For Commerce Brands

We have looked at different areas that might affect consumer confidence. But intent data by itself only shows how people might be feeling. There are lessons that brands can take into the hard times that are coming that can be applied across most industries, especially in the B2C space.

Is It Time To Start Digital Downselling?

With personalization technology and remarketing most companies are familiar with trying to upsell customers to increase ROI (return on investment). But in hard times it might be worth experimenting with digital downselling.

You could, for example, recommend cheaper alternatives for products to your existing customer base. If someone is buying a laptop you could recommend a cheaper case or bag for it. You can even refine your messaging on ads for different search queries to take this into account.

The “Messy Middle” Will Get Messier

If customers are more price driven while searching for a new product, they will spend more time researching their purchase. This means you may see more searches per touchpoint in both B2C and B2B. In response you should refine your ad placements, start targeting some price driven terms that customers may be using so you can put your message in front of them.

It is here that personalization can help. It will allow you to convert price conscious customers more effectively by giving them a message that really applies to them when they want to make a purchase.

Do Not Just “Cut” Your Acquisition Spend, Optimize Your Acquisition Spend

Before you start cutting your acquisition spend, look at the opportunities that these tough times might bring. You might be able to launch a new product to serve new needs. You can use customer surveys to find out what is changing and for who. Look at what has worked, and is working for you now and cut down on what does not work. 

If you run search ads it is very possible that you are appearing on terms without relevant messaging. Spend time optimizing your messaging so it is more relevant to users. Just cutting your ad spend to the bone is a temporary solution that may not even work long term.

Google your product or service right now. Look at what Google shows and refine your ads/messaging accordingly.

Better, More Relevant Experiences

If customers are spending longer researching your product or service, give them an experience that makes you stand out from everyone else. 

Tough times make experimentation even more important. If you have spoken to your customers, use these findings to give them a more relevant experience.

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