Almost a year ago, I wrote a story about MacKenzie Bezos. The novelist had recently divorced Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and announced she planned to give away the majority of her fortune, estimated at the time to be worth more than $36 billion. I argued that while it was an admirable move on MacKenzie’s part, relying on the generosity of the rich wouldn’t solve society’s problems.
Around that time is when the messages started to arrive: In hundreds of emails, calls, and texts, people showered me with flattering platitudes and marriage proposals, shared startup ideas, and told rambling personal stories. Most of the time, though, they asked for money. I didn’t understand what was happening, at least not at first. As a reporter, I don’t usually field emails requesting, as one self-described 30-year-old in Korea did, that I buy them a Porsche.
I slowly realized that I wasn’t being spammed, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, I was being mistaken for MacKenzie Bezos herself. How did hundreds of people wind up reaching a random woman in Brooklyn instead of a powerful billionaire? The answer turned out to be the result of an even more powerful tech company: Google.
When WIRED published that story about MacKenzie, embedded in the article page was my email address and a phone number. It was intended for readers to share feedback or send tips—a common practice among journalists and writers. Since MacKenzie’s name was in the article, Google began pulling the paragraph with my information as though it was hers. If you searched for “MacKenzie Bezos phone number,” “MacKenzie Bezos contact,” or something similar on Google, my email address and phone number were likely to show up at the top of the results, prominently displayed in a standalone box the company calls a “featured snippet.”
Not everyone who contacted me fully believed I was MacKenzie—“Sure this is a scam email,” one person wrote in a message earlier this month—but enough people seemed to. I’ve received countless messages since last May, some describing heartbreaking situations, others nearly indecipherable. These days, they’ve taken a semi-apocalyptic turn as a result of the pandemic. A person from the UK recently requested funds to build an underground bunker for their family and friends. “I should tell you more about myself. I don’t make a habit of asking people for £2 million, but this virus has taught me that I need to be ready for the big one,” they wrote.
I reached out to Google’s press email three times to try to get my problem fixed, starting in November of last year. In February, feeling desperate, I asked if there was anything WIRED could do to make it stop. “Once again I’m experiencing this problem with Mackenzie Bezos, I’ve received probably 100 emails in the last few weeks from Google users who think I am her or work with her,” I wrote. “If there’s anything WIRED can do, please let me know.” I finally heard back from Google this week, after I said I planned to write about my experience.
“In situations where people are searching for something like a phone number that is not readily available online, our systems are understanding these pages (that include those exact keywords plus a phone number) to be the best matches available, even if the phone number is not the correct number for that entity,” Lara Levin, a spokesperson for Google, said in an email. Levin added that the company plans to look at ways it could improve its system “to better recognize” when a phone number should not be resurfaced as a featured snippet.
Until that happens, the only recourse is for WIRED to reconfigure its website to prevent Google from scraping my contact information. I could, of course, take down my email address and phone number altogether, but I want people to know how to reach me in order to do my job. I’m fine with strangers reaching out to me—I just don’t want them to think I’m a billionaire philanthropist.
Is there something you think we should know? You can reach the writer, who is not a billionaire, at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 347-966-3806.
Google’s stated mission has always been to “organize the world’s information.” For a long time, it mainly did that by ranking search results. Type a question or keyword into Google’s search bar, and it would return a list of websites its algorithms decided had the best chance of containing an answer to your question. You were expected to click through to find what you wanted—Google was a portal, not a destination. Eight years ago, the company fundamentally changed that arrangement when it introduced its “Knowledge Graph.”
Now, Google often tries to answer your query directly, by pulling information from sites like Wikipedia into boxes it calls “featured snippets” or “knowledge panels,” which appear above or alongside traditional search results. If you look up a celebrity’s net worth, for example, Google may scrape the information from somewhere like CelebrityNetWorth.com. Especially on mobile devices, the widgets are convenient for users in search of quick answers, sidestepping the need to dig through information published by multiple sources.
Google featured snippets and knowledge panels are controlled by algorithms, and largely not pre-screened for accuracy. That means the knowledge Google scrapes from the rest of the internet is not always correct. Plenty of errors, some more consequential than others, have made it onto Google this way. In one case, a knowledge panel incorrectly stated entrepreneur and basketball dad LaVar Ball founded the NBA. In a particularly embarrassing instance from 2018, Google’s knowledge panel for the California Republican Party listed “Nazism” among its ideologies. The company attributed the mishap to Wikipedia vandalism that then got pulled into Google, but it still angered Republican lawmakers already concerned the tech giant was biased against conservatives.
As I learned firsthand, people can spend months trying to rectify false information contained in them. In one instance reported by The Wall Street Journal last year, Google incorrectly stated the actor Paul Campbell had passed away, causing his mother to panic. Levin, the Google spokesperson, says that the company encourages people to provide it with feedback, and will “take action on these features in accordance with our policies.” Google’s policies on featured snippets don’t ban false information explicitly, although the company does say that “public interest content—including civic, medical, scientific and historical issues—should not contradict well-established or expert consensus support.”
This isn’t even the first time my contact information has been listed by Google as a way to reach someone else. In March of last year, Google started associating my number and email address with TikTok customer support, after I published a simple guide to using the app. I received dozens of messages from people locked out of their accounts or struggling with other issues. A group of girls from Norway asked me why their videos weren’t going viral like the ones from their American peers. I only understood what was happening after I started texting a teenager whose TikTok account had been hacked by her bully. She called me repeatedly one night, and later patiently explained that she had found my number on Google. At the time, there didn’t appear to be a straightforward way to contact TikTok through its website, which likely didn’t help my case.
As MacKenzie Bezos’ Google doppelgänger, I’ve heard from people who say they’re in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Pennsylvania, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, England, Namibia, India, Kenya, New York, Ghana, Alabama, and many more places. It’s unlikely I would have heard from any of them if not for Google, one of the most influential sources of information across the world.
The tech giant’s power might be why my contact information was associated with MacKenzie Bezos in the first place: Like many publications, WIRED gets a significant portion of its web traffic through search engines. To make that happen, our website is optimized to rank as highly in search results as possible. In fact, I’m not the only journalist to experience this same problem; Google associated Motherboard reporter Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai’s phone number with Facebook customer support last year. Both of our mixups were the combined result of Google trying to give people the answers they want, and media organizations working to ensure their work is seen by as many eyeballs as possible.
I continue to hear from people in search of MacKenzie Bezos almost every day. While I was finishing up this story, my phone rang. A number from Bangladesh was calling, my daily reminder that somewhere out there, I’m still being mistaken for a billionaire.