Every city has its own unique characteristics. We know that industrial and occupational specializations can be measured using standard economic tools like location quotients. But some of the more intangible characteristics of cities are harder to measure. We’re always on the look out for new and interesting ways of discerning city distinctiveness. The Internet search engine Google provides one window into the way people think about cities.

Unless you’ve been using AOL out of spite, you’ve at least seen Google’s auto fill capability. As you start typing your query, Google tries to guess what you are searching for drawing on its database of the most common search queries.

Some have used this capability as a way to create a natural experiment on human perceptions. Renee diResta hit on the idea of using the Google auto fill function to tease out stereotypes of states. She Googled a state name, and let Google suggest answers, asking for example “Why is [California] so…?”. She noted which words Google suggested and tabulated the results for states. Nate Shivar then took up the mantle, looking at cities instead of states.

We thought this was extremely interesting– if unscientific — and could illustrate how different cities are perceived. Here are Nate Shivar’s results for 50 cities, which we’ve sorted according to the most commonly searched terms. The most Googled term was “expensive” (14 of 50 cities) followed by boring, dangerous, ghetto, and bad. Some search terms were idiosyncratic to a single city, such as “Why does Salt Lake City have such wide streets?” Some places, like Raleigh or Indianapolis registered only one or two descriptors; perhaps they don’t trigger any distinctive characterizations There were some that were clearly not about the city, like Why is Charlotte so uneasy about being on a ship? (Readers of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle will know why).

We built the following map to illustrate the geographic patterns of the most common city descriptors. In order to see where apparently the most “ghetto,” polluted or boring places are, all you have to do is click the drop down below for the description of your choice, and select “Y.” (As a side note, if you choose “N” for no, the map will show all of the places that Google users don’t describe as boring, bad, etc. To reset the map, just choose “All” for whatever descriptions you have selected.) To see what the top 4 descriptions are for each city, hover your mouse over the location.

Some of the more interesting observations are:

  • Apparently, Google searchers don’t worry about cities in the Western half of the country as being “bad” or “dangerous.”
  • Many Northern cities you expect to be cold are listed as such, but places like Atlanta and San Diego are seen –by the Google masses– as cold, too. (We didn’t add hot into the map, because there weren’t any surprises there.)
  • Either people simply expected their east coast (…and Midwest … and southern..) cities to be polluted, or one pocket in the West/Southwest — the cities Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City– has particularly bad pollution problems. (While this may be true, big industrial cities like Pittsburgh don’t have people asking why they’re polluted, so we think some of this may be the surprise associated with a city like Denver being polluted.)
  • Concerns about racism are most frequently expressed in three cities: Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. Interestingly, none of these cities is among the most racially segregated, a group that is led by Detroit, Milwaukee and New York (detailed list is here)
  • With the exception of Minneapolis, if you want live cheaply, don’t live on a coast.
  • The more unusual descriptions follow: Jacksonville is smoky; Portland is white; Detroit is black; Tampa Bay is trashy; Philadelphia is either bad or great; Providence/Rhode Island is corrupt; and, apparently, Google often confuses Columbus — the city in Ohio — with the 15th century explorer.

Thanks very much to Nate Shivar investigating auto fill for cities. Based on his later revisions, like Providence and Rhode Island as a whole are synonymous to many, we updated the descriptions for this analysis. To dig in more to distinctiveness and our take on it, go here. For questions regarding this analysis or anything else, feel free to email info@cityobservatory.org.