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Google coronavirus mobility tracker rates where social distancing is working

Google is using anonymized location data to highlight how well people are following stay-at-home orders and coronavirus social-distancing guidelines, releasing new reports that rate Community Mobility. The system taps the same tracking tools Google has used to show things like popular store hours, based on things like smartphone location.

In happier, less pandemic-focused times, that data was relied upon to add the “busy period” graphic to business listings in Google Maps. By looking at aggregated, anonymized location data for multiple users, Google could calculate when stores and other locations were typically busier than others.

The hope for the Community Mobility Reports, of course, is that the trend goes the other way, and shows a drop in activity. According to Karen DeSalvo, MD, M.P.H. and Chief Health Officer at Google Health, the company has been approached by public health officials hoping for more insight into COVID-19 reactions. As such, Google is applying the same tools to mapping the impact of work from home and shelter in place policies, which are increasingly being implemented around the world.

“The reports use aggregated, anonymized data to chart movement trends over time by geography, across different high-level categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential,” DeSalvo explains. “We’ll show trends over several weeks, with the most recent information representing 48-to-72 hours prior.”

Initially, Google plans to release reports covering 131 countries and regions. Some of those will have regional level data, too, depending on what’s available. More locations will be added in the coming weeks.

While there’s been an uptick in social scolding – and worse – for those not following the recommendations around distancing, Google argues that its reports are intended to help official COVID-19 management, not shame areas.

“In addition to other resources public health officials might have, we hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic,” DeSalvo explains. “For example, this information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings. Similarly, persistent visits to transportation hubs might indicate the need to add additional buses or trains in order to allow people who need to travel room to spread out for social distancing.”

As with the original Google Maps features, the coronavirus mobility tracker will use a few techniques to avoid overstepping on privacy. No personally identifiable information – such as specific location, movement, or contacts for a single person – will be released. Google also uses differential privacy to add artificial noise to the dataset, so that it can’t be retroactively used to identify any one individual.

It relies on Location History being turned on, too, which Google sets to off by default. If you’ve had that enabled, and would prefer not to, you can switch it off in the Google Account settings either on your smartphone or through the browser, as well as delete what information Google has stored.

While this isn’t the first time we’ve seen location data used to draw COVID-19 mobility conclusions, what sets it apart is the likely scale of the information Google has to work with. The popularity of its products – and the number of people who have probably enabled Location History – could well make this one of the more accurate insights into how the ongoing pandemic has changed our behavior.

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Social Distancing Saves Lives. Here’s The Proof.

Statewide social distancing measures played a major role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 this spring, researchers reported on August 11 in PLOS Medicine.

Between March 10 and March 25, all 50 states and the District of Columbia adopted at least one form of social distancing. These restrictions prevented 621,000 cases of COVID-19 across the United States within three weeks of being implemented, the researchers estimated. What’s more, after a state enacted social distancing, its rate of deaths related to COVID-19 dropped, on average, after one week.

“Although we’re anxiously waiting for the development of a vaccine and for some therapeutics that may help prevent transmission of this virus, at the moment we have very few tools available to us,” says Mark Siedner, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a coauthor of the new findings. “So we really want to know how things like government policies can impact transmission of the virus.”

During past pandemics, government-issued social distancing measures have cut down on disease transmission. Cities that reacted swiftly to the 1918 influenza pandemic by banning mass gatherings, closing schools, or taking other actions endured less severe outbreaks than those that waited or lifted restrictions too quickly.

To find out how effective similar policies have been during the COVID-19 pandemic, Siedner and his colleagues first determined when each state introduced social distancing strategies. These included closing schools and businesses, cancelling public events, closing state borders, and restricting people’s movements within a state.

The team then examined what happened 4 days later—roughly one incubation period, or the time between when people are infected and when they typically begin to show symptoms (for a given individual who catches COVID-19, the incubation period can vary from around 2 to 14 days). They found that the rate of new cases dropped by about 1 percent per day beginning 4 days after a state implemented social distancing.

Before these measures were in place, the number of new COVID-19 cases in a state was doubling every 3.2 days on average. After three weeks of social distancing, the time it took for new cases to double slowed to 7.7 days on average.

Although states used a variety of different combinations of social distancing strategies, within 4 days “the epidemic in the vast majority of states began to decline,” Siedner says. However, he adds, “The epidemic growth rate was already so high at the time that they were implemented that we probably missed an opportunity by not implementing them earlier.”

The researchers did not find an association between lockdown orders—which states implemented after other less restrictive measures such as closing schools had gone into effect—and a lessening of COVID-19 cases. This might be because these restrictions typically went into effect 7 to 10 days after the first social distancing measures were already in place. If so, Siedner says, it’s possible that any kind of social distancing order motivated people to take additional precautions and limit their contact with others.

“Is the government issuing of a mandate a trigger that tells people it’s time to really take this seriously?” he says. To find out, he and his team are now investigating how quickly the number of new cases begins to rise after a state lifts social distancing restrictions.

Other studies in China, Europe, and the United States have also found that social distancing has helped stem the spread of COVID-19. “Most of the data is really leading us to believe that these government mandated measures can work,” Siedner says.

However, he acknowledges, these policies have also prevented people from working, disrupted their education, and kept them apart from other people. Going forward, it will be important to figure out how to use social distancing measures more precisely, like a faucet that can be turned to full blast or trickle out as needed in COVID-19 hotspots.

“Even if we’ve come from a state of restriction to a state of relaxation,” Siedner says, “We need to be prepared to turn around and go back the other way in the times and in the places where other containment measures aren’t working.”

Google Is Not Building A Coronavirus Testing Website

President Donald Trump erroneously stated in an emergency address that Google is building a coronavirus testing website.

Trump said 1,700 Google engineers are working on a coronavirus screening site that could be launched as early as this Sunday.

On the contrary – not only is the site not ready to launch but it’s not even being developed by Google. The site is being developed by a company called Verily, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet.

Google and Verily are entirely different companies, which Google itself clarified in a tweet:

“We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.

“We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort.”

Verily provided its own statement to TechCrunch:

“Verily is developing a tool to help triage individuals for COVID-19 testing. We are in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time,” the company said in its statement. “We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort.”

That’s a fairly important piece of information to leave out in a statement that was broadcast live to the entire United States.

Just for comparison’s sake, read Trump’s statement below:

“I want to thank Google. Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location… Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They have made tremendous progress.”

Based on what we’ve learned since Trump’s statement, here are the key takeaways from all of this:

Verily is developing a coronavirus screening website, not Google.

Google and Verily are both owned by Alphabet, but are otherwise separate companies.

People will be able to visit the website and enter their symptoms to discover if they’re consistent with symptoms of coronavirus.

The website will help direct individuals to the nearest facility where they can get properly tested.

Results of in-person tests can later be retrieved on the website.

At this time we still don’t know when the site will launch, or any other pertinent information.

Google Gets Social With Google Co

Google Gets Social with Google Co-op

Google announced their new social search oriented Google Co-op project at their Annual Press Day yesterday afternoon. Google Co-op marks Google’s entrance into the social or shared search market, where holders of Google Accounts can contribute their knowledge and expertise to improve Google’s search results and vertical search properties via personalized subscriptions.

Google says that These contributions serve as meta information that helps Google’s search algorithms connect users to the most relevant information for their specific query.

“Google Co-op and the other new services announced today combine the power of Google’s technology with the context, knowledge, and unique expertise of individuals,” said Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president, Product Management, Google Inc. “As a result, users can find the information they are looking for – no matter how specialized or specific – faster than ever.”

Suffering from a bit of exhaustion, I’ll lend the rest of this post to the Searchosphere’s impressions of Google Co-op:

Pandia: Google has already worked with partners to annotate web pages related to health and city guides and to offer dozens of subscribed links to specialized content such as restaurant and movie information. Later on a “broader online community” will begin building out new topic areas. Whether this means that regular users may contribute as experts is unclear.

Barry Schwartz : Google has announced four new products yesterday, one of those products is named Google Co-op. Google Co-op enables you to create what are called “subscribed links,” which basically allows you to create a Google SERP, define the title, description and the URL(s) to be displayed in the SERPs, for those who “subscribed” to your link. You can create an XML feed, submit your feed to Google Coop and then enable people to subscribe to that Coop. There are currently dozens of subscriptions available for you to be a part of at the Google Coop Directory.

Search Engine Watch’s Danny Sullivan : It’s a very cool idea. For example, say you are regularly searching for information about search engines and would like to know if Search Engine Watch specifically has any matching info along with searching the entire web for that topic. If we get our act together (and we’ll try soon), you could make us one of your subscribed links. Then the next time you search for something where we have content, you might see our matches right at the top of Google.

Where do you find providers? Google’s got a currently very small directory of them here to choose from. Preferred partners are already listed, partners that Google thinks people will be especially interested in, not those who have paid. No money is exchanging hands in either direction to be a subscribed link provider, Google says.

Coronavirus Impact On Google Ads And Affiliate Sales

Why is Amazon Virtually Cancelling Google Ads?

It appears that Amazon may be responding to changing trends in consumer spending due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to an article in Buzzfeed News, Amazon has reported a surge in buying that has necessitated hiring an additional 100,000 workers to meet the demand.

As reported by Buzzfeed:

“As Americans retreat to their homes to weather the coronavirus pandemic, they are increasingly turning to Amazon to get basic necessities such as groceries, as well as medicines, cleaning supplies, and, of course, toilet paper.”

Amazon is turning its focus toward meeting the demand of citizens who are “sheltering in place.” To shelter in place means to stay in ones home and not leave except for basic necessities like food and other home supplies.

Yet fear of contracting COVID-19 has consumers wary of leaving their homes so they are turning to Amazon.

According to the report by tinuiti:

“Amazon seemed to abruptly change course towards the end of January 2023 across many product categories and was less prevalent through the first week of March.

Profound Change in Search Trends

What is happening is that online sales is undergoing an extreme change in buying trends. Demand for household items and medical supplies are spiking to an extraordinary degree. The change is so dramatic that Amazon is hiring 100,000 new workers in order to meet the demand.

The following Google Trends graph illustrates the dramatic change in search trends. Considered together with Amazon’s decision to ship only essential goods, these both may be signals of a profound change in consumer buying trends for the next few months.

Yoga mats and Apple Air Pods are listed by Amazon as among the most popular products for sale on Amazon within their respective categories.

But as you can see in this Google Trends graph, demand for toilet paper has dwarfed that of yoga mats and Air Pods.

Amazon Focuses on Medical Supplies and Household Staples

According to a report on Search Engine Journal, Fulfillment By Amazon shipments have stopped except for household and medical supplies that consumers need.

Amazon’s statement noted:

“We are seeing increased online shopping and as a result some products such as household staples and medical supplies are out of stock.

With this in mind, we are temporarily prioritizing household staples, medical supplies and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so that we can more quickly receive, restock, and ship these products to customers.

For products other than these, we have temporarily disabled shipment creation. We are taking a similar approach with retail vendors.”

According to Amazon, this change in focus will continue through at least April 5, 2023. That’s a little more than two weeks. The CDC has ordered a ban on crowds of 50 or more people for eight weeks. Some communities have banned gatherings of as few as ten people in one place.

Takeaways

Amazons dramatic pivot away from Google Ads may be a sign that online sales of non-essential consumer products may begin to trend downward as medical and household supplies rise in demand.

It’s also possible that these trends may affect affiliate marketing. It will be hard to make an affiliate sale through Amazon if Amazon is not shipping the high margin products popular with affiliate marketers.

Read report on Amazon disabling shipping on Fulfilled by Amazon products that are non-essential.

Read the report on Amazon virtually cancelling Google Ads by tinuiti

Google Social Search; The Lost Update

Can you imagine there being a change at Google that pre-dates Panda, (and subsequent incarnations) the +1 button, the attribution algo updates and few if any in the SEO world had noticed? I mean, it makes one helluva trivia question don’t it? Not as much fun as; What does Archie comics have to do with the early history of search. But it’s fascinating none-the-less.

Hey gang… long time no chat! Dave here… long lost SEJ writer and all around search geek. Can we talk or what?

February 17th 2011; the day it all changed

First off, those of you familiar with my ranting and ramblings on this topic, are excused. It’s unlikely we’ll be covering much new for my faithful SOSGs (no that’s not talking dirty, it’s; Seriously Obsessed Search Geek m’kay?). It simply needs to be repeated for a larger audience.

Those still wondering what this mad rambling Gypsy is on about, walk with me…

Over the years we’ve seen many changes to Google that had some interesting if not far reaching implications for the fastidious search optimizer. Odd, I’ve never optimized a search engine. What’s up with that? Anyway, getting lost again. We’ve had the rise of personalization (and general flux), the timeliness of the QDF (query deserves freshness), finding our way with deeper localization and general madness in what we call universal search. The list is ever-growing it seems over the last few years.

Many times during these evolutions SEO types weren’t always grasping the value right out of the gate. At least though there were some that caught it and generally some form of awareness within short order.

I mean, this is the group of folks that traditionally go a little mental each time there is a Google toob bar PageRank update… (like this);

What happened some 4 months ago, while extremely noteworthy, has gone almost entirely un-noticed or at very least, below the radar of those covering the industry.

The 2011 Google Social Search Update

For starters, is it unsurprising this went largely unnoticed? In retrospect, no. If we consider that back in 2008 we caught a glimpse of the Google social graph work and ultimately user profiling, which few seemed interested in, then no. If we consider the madness that ensues with shiny bobbles like the +1 button, then ok, yes… it does give one pause to say WTF?

And on a side note, some have suggested that SEOs like the thought of the +1 having ranking weight because…well… then they can manipulate it. Another story tho… we’ll get back to that.

Here’s the short version of what went down (Googly post here);

Ok, seems kinda unremarkable on the surface right? NOT. This is something fairly significant in the world of search.

Now, a few notes of interest;

Google accounts are on the rise (think Android)

It pulls from the social graph

It is another form of personalization

Does an end-around on problematic explicit feedback

Uses primary and secondary contacts

It re-ranks (search) listings

Catch that last one? It RE-RANKs the listings in the SERP. Anyone that’s been around long enough remembers how we drooled on the new short-cuts to the front page when various verticals gained prominence (aka universal SERPs). This is no different.

Look…. this is logged out;

And this is logged in;

WOW. We have a new way of ranking and SEOs aren’t talking about it? Did you know that there are a few thousand freaking articles on the +1 button (which doesn’t re-rank anything) but outside of ol Rand (who recently discovered it apparently) and yours truly (tho mine has been a little obsessive ROFL) there has been very little on this one?

Consulting the crystal ball

This is all about looking into the future. We are seeing (over the last few years) an evolution to search that will most certainly be around for years to come. It started with real-time search and has grown out of control since then. Google has had a stated goal of deeper personalization for many years. One of the problems has always been the inherent issues with implicit/explicit feedback.

The social graph is a VERY effective way to gain deeper personalization beyond the traditional signals and matches well with the way the web is growing. In short; it makes sense.

Regardless of how much value you see in it now, this is an important development at Google. Did you get spanked by the Panda? Then maybe paying closer attention to the evolution of search could have prevented it. Don’t drop the ball again.

Some food for thought

Ok, enough rambling. I simply wanted to abuse the hallowed halls of SEJ to try and get the word out one last time on this. A few thoughts before I go….

They have a good grasp on you social circle (see here); they likely weren’t doing that just for fun right?

Google has long been interested in social profiling, known at the time as ‘friend rank’. The road map has been in front of us the entire time, if you’re looking.

And what about the latest foray? Google Plus. It sure seems that what we’ve seen in the last few years is all moving in a concerted direction. I can see MANY ways that this social search update can play nicely with Google Plus. Consider the simple fact that Google Profiles are now wrapped up in Plus. I had originally lamented that they needed better management, which seems to be happening now.

Point being, this is a major vision of where search and social are likely headed. If you, like many, haven’t really been looking at this… it really is time that you did.

If you don’t…. you may find yourself left out of the loop in the real near future

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