Barry Schwartz pointed out on SER a Google Places Help thread about a Jewish business owner who is complaining about receiving “Nazi” keyword traffic via Google Maps. Indeed, if you search for something like “nazi” or “swastika building” in Google Maps in San Diego, this man’s Balloon business is oddly listed in the search results:
Now, you might wonder why people would be searching for those keywords in San Diego in the first place, and there’s actually a reason why, as Barry pointed out. In fact, I feel marginally responsible for this, so I delved into the business owner’s question to try to diagnose what might be happening.
Some years back, among all the reporting and documenting I do about what’s going on in Google Maps, I came across a unique building in San Diego — an old military barracks, as it turns out, which is shaped like a Nazi Swastika:
I documented that in my Flickr account, and went along without thinking about it much.
Until it went viral.
At some point, some radio DJs glommed onto the story and also the Anti-Defamation League came across the picture and made the public more widely aware of the offensive shape. Even though the shape could only be seen from flying overhead or via online aerial photos, public outrage was sufficient to persuade the military to agree to renovate the exterior of the building in order to change the shape in birds-eye profile.
So, there’s reason why a lot of people are searching for “nazis” and “swastika buildings” in San Diego. But, to a lay person it may not be clear why a balloon business might come up as relevant to those searches within Google Maps.
After delving into this, I believe there’s an explanation, and a solution — it does not appear to be any neonazi conspiracy or anything. When Google Maps finds relatively few listings which are relevant to a user’s search term, they may do a couple of things — they’ll automatically expand the geography behind the scenes in order to cast their nets wider to see if any businesses may match the search term before returning results. And, they will start bringing in businesses which have a “fuzzy-match” to the search query.
Unfortunately for Balloon Utopia, they appear to have been evaluated to be a fuzzy match for the Nazi search terms because they advertised on “San Diego Jewish World” , which is a sort of local Jewish news site for San Diego. There are one or two articles on that site which mention Nazis, and even an article that reported on the Swastika Building at Coronado Naval Base.
Google Maps’ algorithms considered Balloon Utopia to be closely tied to the San Diego Jewish World site because Balloon Utopia’s ads and links appear throughout in a number of places. Their phone number appears on those ads. Balloon Utopia even links to the news site from their “Links” page — so the algorithms may’ve even thought the news site might be a blog owned by Balloon Utopia.
Since San Diego “nazi” keyword searches matched up with pages on the San Diego Jewish World news site, and since that site appears closely related to Balloon Utopia, Google Maps displayed Balloon Utopia in a fuzzy-match for the nazi keyword searches.
Now, how to fix this?
If Google Maps is unresponsive, I think that Balloon Utopia could correct the situation by asking San Diego Jewish World’s site to remove their ads, and Balloon Utopia could remove the link to them as well. In a few weeks after Google Maps respiders these sites, the association would disappear.
However, Balloon Utopia shouldn’t have to do that at all. Google Maps should fix this problem. I’d suggest that Google Maps may want to disable fuzzy matching for a number of offensive/negative terms, or else we could start seeing this abused on purpose as a sort of Google-bombing within Google Maps.
Finally, one other solution for Balloon Utopia occurs to me. Since the Navy has apparently not yet fixed the building profile, Balloon Utopia could take this opportunity to fix the issue themselves in order to get a ton of cool press promotion! The government estimates for fixing the building shape were many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Balloon Utopia could arrange to fly loads of their balloons over strategic parts of the building in order to obliterate the offensive Nazi swastika symbol, and Google Maps and other online mapping systems could agree to fly their camera planes over the building on that day!
Balloon Utopia could be the hero of the affair, changing the shape of the building in aerial photos at a fraction of the cost that the military estimated!