Google Maps Holiday Controversy Reflects Deeper Issues in Local Search

Amidst the deluge of news before, during, and after last week’s inauguration, you may have missed a small item that, though comparatively insignificant, held up an intriguing local-sized mirror to the contemporary debate around the ethics and neutrality of media.

For most of us around the country, last Monday the 16th was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That’s also the case in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, but those three states observe Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the same date.

When the MLK holiday was first proposed, it was more controversial in the South than the celebration of Confederate heroes. Now, of course, most people would consider the continued celebration of Lee’s birthday to be the real controversy. This story would not have been a subject for national news, however, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Google listed the holiday on the Knowledge Panels for many local businesses in these states.

At first, as covered by Mike Blumenthal, many listings on Monday showed only the Robert E. Lee holiday as the reason some business’s hours might differ. Indeed, there were two Confederate holidays last week – Robert E. Lee’s birthday in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, and Confederate Heroes Day in Texas on Thursday the 19th. Google showed both holidays in many of its listings, though Confederate Heroes Day was mistakenly called Confederate Memorial Day (a holiday celebrated in several states in April or May).

At Brandify we discovered that the only way to remove any mention of the holidays, which many brands and consumers would consider offensive, was to temporarily take away operating hours completely from the listings.

Later in the day on Monday the 16th, Google apologized for the mistake of leaving out any mention of Martin Luther King Day, and updated listings to show the King holiday and Lee’s birthday side by side.

Brandify’s Google claiming team observed that on Thursday, some listings in Texas were still displaying Confederate Memorial Day, while some were not. At that time, as shown in the screenshot, it was still possible to see both Confederate holidays listed in Google’s support forum as part of a standard list of holidays published in Google Maps.

Today, if you visit the same support page, you’ll see that Google has removed Robert E. Lee Day and Confederate Memorial Day completely, though it has retained other state-level holidays such as Mardi Gras in Louisiana and Pioneer Day in Utah. Presumably, to judge from Google’s apology and its modified holiday list, in the future we’ll see no mention of Confederate holidays in Google Maps.

I’m not aware of this issue coming up in previous years. Perhaps someone at Google inadvertently updated Maps holidays from an external source without closely vetting the list. If the issue hadn’t come up this year, we wouldn’t be left to wonder about the ethical ramifications of publicly referencing a holiday that many find offensive.

Google is probably right to sidestep the issue completely, but it does bring up an interesting ethical challenge. After all, these holidays do exist in four states, and businesses and government offices might in fact be closed to observe them. Google is a neutral party in all of this, whose mission is simply to present its user base with accurate information. Is it truly better to omit any mention of a holiday that might spark controversy, if the result is an inaccuracy in Maps?

Again, the answer is probably yes. Undoubtedly, these small exceptions are necessary in more ways than we know in order to preserve consistent policies across a large and messy dataset. But in making this decision, Google departs somewhat from its mission to bring hyperlocal precision to its worldwide directory of places.

I’ve argued before that today’s digital mapping services, though owned and monetized by private companies with no regulation, can be thought of along the lines of public trusts or utilities. In that light, Google, Apple, and other companies relied on by millions of consumers for access to public information should reflect the values of the communities they serve. In cases where those values are not unanimous, public companies are faced with an ethical question, and their answers can help to shape perceptions among users. For many, the removal of a Confederate holidays from Google Maps signals that it is truly a thing of the past.

Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.
  1. Mike Blumenthal
    January 26, 2017

    First several points of fact. The holiday in Texas is actually named Confederate Heroes Day not Confederate Memorial Day. Secondly it is what is known as an optional state holiday so most government offices are open but lightly staffed. Thirdly virtually NO businesses celebrate the day by closing.

    So leaving politics aside (which is not really possible – there are plenty of questions about celebrating Heroes in this context) one has to ask why should consumers be alerted to the possibility of different holidays when virtually no business has different hours?

    Also one has to ask as to why should thousands of businesses have to make special effort to change hours on a day that so that consumers are not confused?

    The solution is really that Google should not be flagging hours on this sort of minor weekday holiday or if they do then they should only be flagged on the limited number of categories (like government offices and banks) that might be affected.

    This logic applies to many of these weekday holidays like President’s day. Google should not be putting the burden of confusion on consumers, the burden of work on businesses and they should not be putting businesses in the middle of the politics because of lazy programming.

    They should be sure that flags that they set in Maps are for the convenience and edification of the public NOT to confuse them or to arbitrarily make work for them.

    1. Damian Rollison
      January 26, 2017

      Thanks for the comments, Mike, and for your original report on this story. We’ve updated the post to reflect the fact that Google mistakenly referred to the holiday as Confederate Memorial Day.

      As for whether businesses are likely to hold different hours: you’re right that the Texas holiday is a bad example, but the larger point probably stands. For instance, Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama is celebrated on April 25 and on that day, many government offices are closed. However Google chooses to treat the operating hours of those offices on April 25, there’s an ethical aspect to the decision.

      And finally, businesses aren’t being asked to change their hours as far as I know, but I very much agree that Google should not flag holidays in business listings where the holiday is irrelevant.

      1. Mike Blumenthal
        January 26, 2017

        The business are essentially being asked to enter Special Hours for that day so that the alert about hours doesn’t appear. So they are being asked to be sure that special hours are set for many holidays which do not apply to them.

        My same logic applies to April 25th holiday. Since so few businesses actually close or change hours why should consumers be confused by Google’s notation about hours being different. Simple, clear thinking would have avoided the bulk of the issues both ethical and otherwise if Google had thought it through.

        1. Damian Rollison
          January 26, 2017

          Right, I don’t think we’re in disagreement. However on the first point, whether or not a business sets special hours, the holiday reference (if there is one) will appear. I think the African American Museum screenshot in your post reflects that. Special hours are set for MLK day but not for Confederate Memorial Day.

          1. Mike Blumenthal
            January 27, 2017

            From google’s help files: If a location doesn’t provide special hours for these days on Google My Business, users on Maps and Search will be warned that the location’s hours may differ on designated holidays.

            My point is that Google is being slopy and in their sloppiness creating outcomes that are not ideal at a social level, consumer level or the business level.

  2. Rutger Geelen
    January 26, 2017

    My company, SchedJoules, provides public holiday calendars via an API to calendars. We had exactly this issue in the past. The problem is that good or bad is in many cases so subjective that we in the end decided to follow the rules set by the local government. If users have problems with certain holidays complain to your local authorities or vote differently next time. There are countries where public holidays change with every newly elected president. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Even countries and country names are reason for dispute. In that case we follow the rule that the UN decides. If the holiday does not impact the opening of business then, I agree with Mike, there is no reason to show holidays anyway. Not sure why Google feels the need to apologise for being factually correct.

    1. Damian Rollison
      January 26, 2017

      Thanks for the comments, Rutger. You’re right that internationally, the situation gets much more complicated and extends not just to holidays but to places on the map. The South China Sea for example is called different things by different countries, often for political reasons.

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