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Amy Wilentz Headshot

How Google Killed Me

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I bet you've never read a blog post written by a dead person before. But Google has turned me into a zombie, declared dead but still walking around.

Do a Google search on me, if you feel so inclined, and check out the Google-search factbox on the right hand side of the page: they have me long gone, departed almost 15 years ago.

Personally, as you can tell from the fact that I am putting this up on the Huffington Post in real-time, I am not quite dead yet, though some might take issue with that statement.

Also, just for the record: I happen not to have been born in 1927. Somewhat later... (Since Google declared me born so very long ago, I have become less reluctant to give out my real birth year, but I won't do it here.)

Also, for the record: although that's a real picture of me in the Google factbox, it's not one any sane person would choose to have as the first image announcing her existence to the world, which is what a Google-search factbox does.

On most days I don't look like that; I don't look as if, in fact, I had died in 1996.

Finding myself offed by the world's greatest search engine, I began to wonder how they'd ended up sending me to an untimely grave.

It was all the fault of my distant cousin Joel, a legendary Florida dermatologist, whom I have never met.

Google picked up my facts from my Wikipedia entry. My Wikipedia entry, oddly, was put up by this Cousin Joel, who has a genealogy obsession, and has assembled an astounding dossier on our family, finding members of it in places as far-flung as Dvinsk, Latvia, Hollywood, California, and Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

So it's not too surprising that my original Wikipedia entry, as conceived by Joel, was -- let's be honest -- more about my father (a famous New Jersey judge) than about me. Joel began the entry with my connection to my father, and immediately mentioned my father's birthdate and the date of his death.

Google is not a subtle thief. If your name on Wikipedia is followed by a birth and death date, apparently those become your dates and they belong to you from that day forward, no matter whose dates they may actually be.

Seen that way, I suppose I should just be glad that I'm not related (as far as Joel knows) to King Solomon, another judge.

I have consulted with various experts about this problem, or oversight, or hideous attack on my very existence.

Here's part of what I've come to understand: An error in a Google-search factbox can only be corrected when Google re-indexes (whatever that means) the information that will update the search. Depending on the size of your website, re-indexing takes either a couple of days, or several months. Like good guys, small websites finish last. Note: my website is small.

There is no way to speed up the process if you are a simple individual, unless you own the original source file or website from which the information comes (in this case, Wikipedia -- I don't own it) and are willing to get in there and use Google webmaster tools to deal with the situation.

Under every Google-search factbox is an opportunity to provide feedback. Thanks, Google. If you click on it, the word "wrong?" appears next to each fact. Needless to say, I have clicked on "wrong?" for the dates of my birth and death; however, the factbox doesn't ask for elucidation.

Actually, I have corrected my Wikipedia entry to reflect my own birthdate rather than my father's, and I have "wronged" my facts in the factbox many times in the last few months -- but they are still there.

This is what happens when the world is ruled by a robot. Luckily in this case the consequences are not dire, but merely amusing and slightly (for me) existential.

Maybe my life would be better, or at least still ongoing, if my website included what I have learned are called search engine optimizers (SEOs), but my website, in fact, is kind of Edwardian, and not up too all that.

It all comes down to Google's algorithm (a word I use carelessly, and frequently, but whose meaning is obscure to me, though I feel it is mathematical), and to how and how often it culls and sweeps the Internet, trolling for lies to tell about innocent civilians.

My fondest wish, perhaps desperate, is that the Awesome Algorithm (awesome in the old sense) will adjust my dates before I actually am translated to eternity. I'm reading Kafka's Castle right now -- which itself may kill me -- so I don't put too much faith in the willingness of unreachable powers, or even in their sentient existence.

I once sat at a dining room table in a very rich man's house. As he sipped wine from a gilded goblet, he described for us the teams he had working on retainer to ensure that his company's name would always pop up at the very top of the Google search page, even though the company shared part of its name with a powerful movie studio.

I bet he wouldn't stay dead long!

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