Using Google Search Data and Uniform Crime Report Data on property crime, we set out to answer three questions. First, is higher property crime associated with increased searches for crime prevention? And, if so, are increased searches for crime prevention associated with a reduction in property crime? Finally, if there is a reduction, what is the magnitude of that reduction?

To address these challenging research questions, we had to pause and apply some criminological thinking. That is, Google Search Data allows you to upload datasets and merely examine what factors correlate. However, this often produces spurious and unrelated relationships. Thus, we turned to criminological theories and what is known about crime and crime trends to guide our research design.

When individuals start searching for crime prevention related products such as security doors, alarm systems, or gate keypads, searches are activating a marketing system that is one of the most powerful that exists today.

To do so, we used the key concepts of target hardening, surveillance, and formal and informal social control. Then, we had to ponder some more. We thought, under each of these concepts, what set of keywords are people likely to search for when their goal is to prevent crime?

Before we address these questions, allow us to first introduce each of the concepts to you. Target hardening is limiting or restricting access to desirable targets (persons or property). For example, then, installing doors or window locks on your home, makes targets less accessible.

Surveillance includes altering the physical, natural, or technological design of places to make crime more visible. Therefore, searches for crime prevention products such as home and or car alarm systems should work to reduce crime in an area.

Formal social control involves the use of official institutions such as law enforcement. Thus, searches for how to file a police report may indicate that people are willing to interact with the police in an area to prevent crime.

Finally, informal social control involves the use of everyday people, much like ourselves, to prevent crime by altering social norms or communicating with others to stop crime in neighborhoods. Today, this often occurs through the use of neighborhood watch programs or the like with protected Facebook groups where neighbors can share concerns over suspicious, or out of the norm neighborhood activity.

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Findings

With these concepts in mind, we compiled a list of search terms that were then aggregated at the state-level. Thus, turning back to our main research question, are areas that have higher property crime associated with increased searches?

57.8% of the crime prevention queries, used in our study, were associated with state-level reductions in property crime.

We find that yes, 86% of our crime prevention terms were statistically associated with property crime levels in a state. In fact, one of the strongest correlations were that of surveillance queries for “car alarm system” and the Uniform Crime Report category of “motor vehicle theft.”

Next, we found that 57.8% of the crime prevention queries, used in our study, were associated with state-level reductions in property crime. Here, the strongest correlation was that of “how to file a police report” and property crime reduction. This strong correlation may in part be explained based on the fact that insurance companies require police reports be filed for damage protection, which in turn lowers crime rates in an area.

Finally, when we explore the magnitude of crime reduction, we found the greatest reduction to occur among states with higher frequency of crime prevention searches.

You may be wondering how can merely searching for crime prevention related terms be associated with actual drops in crime? While we cannot attest to whether individual search patterns lead to actual action in preventing crime, such as the purchase and installation of home and car alarm systems, we do wish to highlight the power of the Internet Marketplace in influencing the collective behavior of individuals.

When individuals start searching for crime prevention related products such as security doors, alarm systems, or gate keypads, searches are activating a marketing system that is one of the most powerful that exists today. Your prior searches then allow retailers to market related crime prevention products towards you and your nearby neighbors. You may then step outside to visit with your neighbors to chat about local conditions or the latest security products you have read about.

Thus, the power of networks, including your neighbors, co-workers, peers, family, and access to technological resources, such as the unlimited access to information that the Internet provides, all work together to create a cumulative effect in crime reduction. Thus, while you may not buy that security system you’ve been window shopping for online, your next-door neighbor just might.