Sunrise, Sunset

When Google gets it wrong

November 1, 2010

Joseph Janes

The good people of Sunrise, on the east coast of Florida, want you to know that they do exist, still, and have not been wiped off the map by a hurricane, or supervillain, or Godzilla. This is despite the fact that on three—three—separate occasions, Google has failed to return any results for a search for Sunrise: The town didn’t appear on maps, and no Sunrise businesses, addresses, or phone numbers came up. Nothing.

Sunrise isn’t alone; CNN reported September 22 that the same fate has befallen several other cities, including La Jolla, California. As you can imagine, Google has offered up the typical non-response response, blaming the data it gets from sources like the Census Bureau, and it’s quite possible that in the process of converting data sets and trying to merge various sources, things went awry.

All understandable, of course . . . this mapping business has got to be very complicated. There’s a slightly whimsical aspect to the story (how careless of them to lose entire cities!) but of course for people running online businesses who simply can’t be found anymore, it’s no laughing matter.

It’s hard to imagine Google failing. That’s a remarkable thing to say for almost any product or service apart from, for example, utilities; I know my heat, or light, or water might have problems or go out once in a while, particularly in an emergency. We all know that most things break down or mess up. Things, yes . . . but not Google.

It didn’t take long for Google to be regarded as not only indispensable, but almost impervious. My internet connection might go down, or I might choose an unhelpful search formulation; an outright “it’s not there” is beyond our ken.

Does this make a yet stronger case for a balanced information diet? Most assuredly. Did Sunrise get resurrected eventually? Yes. Does any of this surprise anybody? Probably not. Is there some deeper significance? Perhaps. If Google felt, as some would posit it has, like being intentionally evil, it could—and that would hurt. The search-engine giant could punish people or organizations or websites it just didn’t like, either overtly by blocking them, or quietly by nudging them ever so slightly down the list of results.

People would yell about anything obvious (ask the good folks at Amazon how that goes) and it would likely get fixed, with a non-response response. Lather, rinse, repeat, until Google would eventually be exposed as truly malevolent, or choosing sides—or until people stopped fighting and caring, because Google’s such an important and necessary service. So we’d put up with the evildoing (see: banks, credit cards, mortgage companies, cellular providers, journal publishers . . . ) and move on.

Evil in the contemporary world comes in many forms, none quite as reassuringly obvious and occasionally comic as a 007 movie or the old Batman series. (I’m imagining Fran Drescher as the Spider, with henchmen Client and Server, manipulating search results to cause chaos.) In a world of subtle and insidious villainy, people turn with hungry eyes for someone, anyone, they can trust—a role libraries and librarians can fill with ease.

Wikipedia tells us that Sunrise, Florida, used to be called Sunset, and changed its name so that its developers could attract more retirees. Mind you, the citation to that little factoid links to the wrong page (it can actually be found, unsourced, on page 1C) of the Miami News of March 5, 1976, available from Google News. I guess everybody’s having a bad day on this score . . . but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. Send ideas to


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