Is Google Playing a COVID-19 Trick? Search Me.

There’s a posting going around some of the comment boards I frequent stating that if you use Google to search for a three digit number plus the phrase “new cases” Google will always report a city or town in the USA which has exactly that number of new cases.

So, type in “123 new cases“, or “456 new cases“, or even “867 new cases” into Google – or use any 3-digit number – and Google will show you a result. Go ahead, click on one of the links now and see, or use your own number: Shocking, isn’t it?

Not really. Here’s an explanation that’s assuredly too long.

Let’s say I have an empty room and put YOU in it, but before I do I ask you for your birthday and you state it’s September 22. (BTW: Happy Birthday!)

What’s the minimum number of random people I need to allow into the room with you to be essentially sure at least one has the same birthday as you?

The easy (and, obvious) answer is “365 people”, as at least one person should have the same birthday as you. But, the minimum number of 75 people will give me a 99.1% chance that one will match your birthday. (BTW: This is called “The Birthday Paradox“, commonly taught in Statistics.)

Now, as of 2018 there are 19,495 incorporated cities, towns and villages in the United States: If Google is reporting results of the number of new cases for each one every day then I only need to find a number between 100 and 999, inclusive, in a list of about 19,500 US locations. It wouldn’t surprise me that entering in any number in that range will provide a result, at least from a statistics standpoint, although I haven’t done the math.

Remember some people are suggesting Google is tampering with (or “salting”, to use a neutral word) their database to guarantee a result will match whatever number you type into the phrase “nnn new cases“.

Well, we can check that pretty easily: The CDC reports that on June 21, 2020 there were about 28,000 reported new cases nationwide. If each Google search of “nnn new cases“, where “nnn” is any 3-digit number, returns a Google result, then using a bit of Gaussian math there must be (450 x 549) or 247,050 total new cases nationwide on June 21, 2020 alone: Otherwise, searching most of those 3-digit numbers wouldn’t return any results from Google.

Seems either the CDC is incorrect….or maybe Google has an affinity for “salt”.

But wait, we’re not quite done: Google is reporting results for ANY previous day of “new cases“, not just for June 21, 2020. Since the reported start of the COVID-19 virus in the USA we’ve had 2,275,645 reported “new cases”, with only some of those being “new” on any given day. Google doesn’t know which “new cases” were actually new on say, May 18th, or June 15th, or any other day before June 21st 2020.

But you can sort it out: After running a Google search, go to Tools –> Any Time, and enter TODAY’s date as the “From” and “To” dates in the little boxes: You’ll quickly see only a very few of the 900 three-digit numbers will be found by the search.

So, looks like Google is on a low-salt diet, and those suspecting Google is up to something are incorrect.

Thanks for reading!

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