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12 Years of Migration-Related Google Searches, Mapped

An interactive data visualization shows where people are searching for information on moving to G7 countries.

Every day, the people of the world type their queries into Google. These searches—once aggregated, sorted, and analyzed—can offer insights about what people in different corners of the world have on their minds.

In the new data visualization below, the folks at Google focused on search data gathered between 2004 and 2016 that had some combination of the word “migration” plus the name of one of the G7 countries. Then, for each year since 2004, they created a list of 10 countries, ranked in order of likelihood that its residents were Googling the combo above relative to all other searches in that country.

If you select “migration to the U.S” from the drop-down menu, for example, a different list is generated for each of the past 12 years. The higher a country is on that list, the larger its proportion of “migration to the U.S” searches compared to other searches that year. Try it out:

There are a couple of patterns that stand out. For many Western G7 nations, top-10 search lists often feature countries that share historical ties. For example, “migration to France” seems to be a popular search topic among former French colonies (like Algeria) and protectorates (like Morocco). People from Bangladesh, Ghana, Pakistan, and India—former colonies of the British empire—are also commonly seeking information on moving to Britain. (Although this may have changed post-Brexit.)

Proximity is another factor that plays into some of the countries’ positions on the top-10 lists. Take Japan: Its Asian neighbors (especially poorer ones like the Philippines) often show up on lists between 2004 and 2015.

The countries showing up on America’s top-10 lists are particularly interesting in the context of actual migration numbers to the U.S. Mexico doesn’t show up on even one top-10 list since 2004, whereas Central American countries including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Honduras have a recurring presence. (They’re near the top of all the U.S. search lists since 2013.) In reality, the number of Mexican immigrants increased in the early 2000s, and then declined sharply in recent years. Migration to the U.S. from Central America has also been rising steadily over the past couple of decades, and so much in the past few years that its been deemed a “crisis.” So in one case here, the actual migration data doesn’t match up to the Google trends data; in the other, it does.

Comparing Google data to real migration numbers underscores a key point: Google trend data is best viewed in the context of facts from on the ground, and it’s not a good idea to project definitive narratives onto it. The data presented in this visualization, for example, don’t necessarily reflect an intention to move, or even actual migration (as in the case of Mexico). That’s because there are a host of reasons that some countries make it onto these lists while others don’t. Who is (and isn’t) searching, how people are searching, and how their searches compare to other search trends are just some of the factors that determine these lists.   

That said, this visualization does offer some insights into the minds of potential immigrants around the world. Ultimately, it’s a “unique snapshot of what the world thinks about,” Simon Rogers, data editor for the News Lab at Google tells CityLab.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.