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Where does Google Maps think you are?

Alex Hern // 20th May 2015
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Where does Google Maps think you are?” was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 20th May 2015 12.35 UTC

Google is in hot water today over some search results on its Maps pages, after it was discovered that a search for “nigger king” brings up the White House as a result. The company apologised, but not before other awkward results were discovered: in London, for instance, a search for “shit hole” brings up Tottenham Hotspur’s football ground.

It is a law of the internet that any story involving weird search results eventually leads to people vanity searching, and sure enough, that’s what we did. And the results were interesting.

If you type my name, Alex Hern, into Google, it brings you, not to the Guardian, where I work (which would make sense), but to the pub in London Bridge where I play the card game Netrunner most weeks. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve been linked online to that pub once, ever.

Similarly, my colleague Samuel Gibbs found that his name takes him to Imperial College, his old university – but again, somewhere he’s not widely linked to online.

Intrigued, we took it to social media, and found more strange results:

A friend, Charlotte Geater, is linked to her old Oxford college:

Artist Jamie McKelvie is linked to the comic shop Gosh! in Soho:

And Vice journalist Joel Golby, future prime minister, is somehow located in 10 Downing Street:

Citymetric editor Jonn Elledge is pinned to his old publication, Londonist:

While BuzzFeed writer Robin Edds, author of The 41 Most British Things That Have Ever Happened, gets linked to … Things British, a shop in St Pancras Station.

Robin Edds’s Google results.
Robin Edds’s Google results. Photograph: Robin Edds

All in all: faintly baffling. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it makes sense but is super creepy (HOW DO THEY KNOW) and sometimes you just have to ask what Google is thinking.

Try it with your own names, and post what you find below. We’ll get to the bottom of this!

Update:

Alicia Melville-Smith gets placed in a restaurant she’s been to before:

Robert Perry’s results are even creepier:

And Thom Phipps discovers another benefit of the service’s search abilities:

Coincidentally, Australian cybersecurity journalist Asher Wolf started a similar exploration of the topic just two days ago, searching for Twitter handles instead of full names:

Wolf says she was inspired by @opticaldensity:

And her exploration prompted writer Henk van Ess to delve deep into the topic:

Type in a name of a living person and Google Maps will try to match your name to a databases based on data of a local Chambers of Commerce or a similar source. This handy feature only works if the person is registered as part of a company, organisation, university or foundation.

If someone is not in the database, you often get results anyway. The reason: Google Maps tries to guess a name that is close to the one you used. So always concentrate on the logic of the answer.

Of course, that still doesn’t explain how Google knows where I play Netrunner…

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