Russia vs. Ukraine: the Search Front
Search data is a great signal for understanding human emotions and public opinion. At CodeFuel, we monitor over 18M searches a day to ensure high-quality performance for search advertisers. These days, however, I’ve been looking at the data from a completely different angle, and the signals emerging as a result of the war between Russia and Ukraine are striking.
It has been 16 days since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and search queries echo the interest and concerns about the war, its causes, and the prominent figures involved. As the UN reports, over 1.5 Million Ukrainians were forced to flee their homes, and others remained to protect their country. Yet, amid this chaos, the unmistakable intentions of the many who are willing to help shine loud and clear.
From Early Signs to Full-Fledged Crisis
Reports of a Russia-Ukraine conflict emerged in the spring of 2021, which referred to Putin’s criticism of the expansion of NATO to include Ukraine. This was reflected by an increase of over 9% in queries around the Russia – Ukraine conflict in April. Russia had already started gathering military forces by the Ukrainian border. At the end of the year, efforts were still being made to negotiate an agreement between Russia and the US, but these proved unsuccessful. Towards the end of January 2022, search queries already reflected the growing tension and anticipation of a possible invasion with an increase of 26% within conflict-related queries.
In the early hours of February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine. On that day, search data indicated a sharp increase of over 180% in related Russia Ukraine queries. While the entire news category has exhibited a significant increase, some of the most searched terms were “Ukraine news,” “Russia Ukraine,” “Ukraine conflict,” and “Ukraine map.”
“How Can I Help?”
One search pattern that stands out during the monitored period is the global cry for help on behalf of Ukraine. Worldwide, many are unsurprisingly searching for ways to alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainian refugees.
Between February 24th and 25th, the data clearly indicates a steep rise in search queries that include the word “help” in them, within the total queries of the ‘Russia – Ukraine’ data. Search terms and keywords reveal massive numbers of people around the globe are looking to help Ukrainians. These charitable efforts range from assistance in finding safe passage out of the country, making donations, or locating online support groups.
The word “help” also appeared in many queries raising questions about the help expected from NATO and the US. Some recurring phrases were “how to help Ukraine,” “nonprofits helping Ukraine,” “is the US helping Ukraine,” and “will NATO help Ukraine.”
A President’s Popularity vs. Notoriety
When we look at the daily percentage out of the total searches of both presidents’ names, “Vladimir Putin” takes the clear lead. However, starting February 27th, a few days after the invasion began, there was an apparent increase in the percentage of queries for “President Zelensky.”
While Ukraine is the evident underdog where military power is concerned, their president is gaining on Putin with search queries. President Zelensky’s rising popularity within Ukraine, along with his unique story, fueled the heightened interest in him. All major news publications have cited his past as an actor and comedian and his unconventional journey to serving as the sixth President of Ukraine.
In his speech to his citizens, he encouraged them to stand up against Putin’s forces, fight back, and not surrender. “I need ammunition. Not a ride.” This statement was a defining moment for the Ukrainian president. His defiant approach struck a chord in the West, and the increasing number of searches indicate a growing interest in him.
I expect this trend to continue its shift as Zelensky makes additional public appearances on behalf of his country. His impassioned appeals for democracy are well received by audiences in the US and European Union.
The Ghost of Kyiv
A trending search query is defined as a specific search term that gains an unexpected, significantly high search volume. Such a query – ‘the ghost of Kyiv’- emerged as one of the top ten queries within the ‘Russia – Ukrain’ search data immediately after February 24. It has since become a viral story and a trending topic on Twitter. According to unofficial reports, the nickname “Ghost of Kyiv” refers to a mysterious MIG-29 fighter pilot who shot down six Russian fighter planes on the first day of the war. Updated reports presently talk about ten Russian aircraft that the mysterious pilot shot down. While some tweets quote the former president of Ukraine confirming the story, many doubt the existence of a single “Ace” pilot. Whether or not this pilot exists, the tale seems to contribute to Ukrainian morale.
As the situation unfolds, my team and I keep our eyes on the world’s heartbeat as reflected by the search data. Here’s hoping for better days.