How Google is sabotaging Birmingham

GoogleBy David Sher

Most folks’ first impression of Birmingham won’t be from driving to town on I-65.

Nor arriving at our Amtrak station, or at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

It will likely be from a simple Google search.

A Google search of Birmingham, however, can be quite embarrassing.

A business friend of mine was recently recruiting a manager for his fast growing company.

He identified a solid out-of-state candidate, but needed to sell him and his family on Birmingham.

The candidate was excited about the opportunity until his thirteen year old son Googled Birmingham and was able to convince his parents that Birmingham was not a good option.

I thought the story a bit farfetched until I Googled Birmingham.

Here’s what I found…

Birmingham is not safe

Birminghamians are obese

Birminghamians are poor

I even found a site that claimed Birmingham was the worst city in the U.S.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty positive about  Birmingham on the Internet, but much of the negative is because of how Birmingham is measured against other cities.

Rankings between Birmingham and other cities are flawed

Birmingham is one of 35 municipalities in Jefferson County.

Therefore the City of Birmingham is ONLY the City of Birmingham. Birmingham does NOT include the other 34 municipalities in Jefferson County.

Nashville, Tennessee, on the other hand, has a combined city-county government with Davidson County–so when Birmingham and Nashville are compared, the comparison is the City of Birmingham without its suburbs vs. Nashville which includes all of Davidson County with its upscale neighborhoods.

The same is true when Birmingham is compared to other city-county governments such as…

Jacksonville/Duvall County, Florida

Louisville/Jefferson County, Kentucky

Indianapolis/Marion County, Indiana

So when someone Googles ‘crime’, Birmingham’s statistics do not include low crime numbers from Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Trussville, or Homewood. This inflates Birmingham’s crime ranking and tells the world that Birmingham is dangerous.

If the City of Birmingham’s crime statistics were ranked strictly against the core urban areas of these other cities, Birmingham wouldn’t look as dangerous. And believe me, these other cities have areas that are unsafe.

I’m not making light of the city of Birmingham’s murder rate–which is horrendous–but violent crime has exploded in urban areas all over the U.S.  According to FBI Director Christopher Wray, “In 2020 there was a 29% jump in murders in the United States.”

And it’s not just crime.

When one compares obesity, poverty, or education in Birmingham without its upscale neighborhoods, Birmingham naturally ranks poorly.

Birmingham–the second largest city in the state

Google ‘Birmingham’ and you’ll see that Birmingham is ranked the second largest city in the state behind Huntsville.

According to U.S. Census, Huntsville has a population of 215,006–Birmingham 200,733.

However, Jefferson County has a population of 674,721.

If Birmingham had a county-city government, its population would be Jefferson County  which has a population three times greater than Huntsville. And even if Huntsville merged with Madison County, which has a population of 388,153, Birmingham would be almost twice as large.

By the way, this is the reason Louisville merged with Jefferson County, Kentucky in 2003.

When Lexington, the second largest city in the state, created a county-city government with Fayette County, Louisville became at risk of becoming the second largest city in Kentucky.

Louisville merged with Jefferson County and remains the largest city in the state. Louisville 782,969 to Lexington 322,570.

Birmingham–the worst city in the U.S.

Then my Google search got really ugly.

I found a video titled the, “TOP 10 reasons why BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA is the WORST city in the US.”

Its description of Birmingham is horrifying.

  • Birmingham super bugs crawl all over you inside or outside your house.
  • Violent crimes committed even in your own home.
  • Risk of being a social outcast for telling someone you’re an Alabama football fan.

Most of the video is pure nonsense, but it has thousands of page views. (I’m not including the link because I don’t want to increase the number of clicks). Google it if you’re inclined.

Birmingham great quality of life

Birmingham is a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

But when folks from out-of-state Google Birmingham, they don’t get a true picture.

A Google search of Birmingham hurts in recruiting families and businesses.

I’m not suggesting we combine our municipalities into Jefferson County, but being separate has unintended consequences.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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24 thoughts on “How Google is sabotaging Birmingham”

  1. Unfortunately the people of this state like it just the way it is everything In Birmingham is bad but our state is great its one thing PERIOD RACE!!!!! Birmingham is under going regentrifcation and when we get a White Mayor again things will change will magically disappear City County will Cooperate Birmingham will be able to self gov.Like raising Mimimum wage state changed law as soon as Bham raises it to 10$hr

  2. This is clickbait nonsense. I say that, though I’m not even fan of Birmingham and after nearly 18 years here, I’ll be moving out of state soon. The city and the metro has lots of problems, but this article is nothing more than a naked attempt to drive traffic to your site. The stats you rattle off amount to nothing, nor do you even attempt to make any sense of it all at the end. Furthermore, a Google search of Birmingham is not nearly as bad as you claim. In fact, the first video that popped up in my search was “What Makes Birmingham A Great Place” by a YouTuber called 601 Travels. Unsurprisingly, they also created the video you mention, “TOP 10 reasons why BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA is the WORST city in the US.” They make positive and negative videos about cities throughout the country. Their reviews are all shallow critiques of these cities mostly based on stereotypes. They all feature slide shows of stock photos from around the internet. They obviously never visit the cities they review. That is to say, 601 Travels is a clickbait creator, and no serious economic professional would rely on their content to make a meaningful socioeconomic argument about a city. You were the Chairman of the BBA. Act like it. Produce thoughtful and articulate ideas, not outrage and clickbait.

    1. John, thanks for taking the time to make your comments. I welcome feedback–both positive and negative. That is how I learn. I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I think of clickbait as a way to trick people into clicking on a website to drive traffic so you can sell ads and make money. I don’t sell adds. It’s true I would like greater readership so people can have the kind of discussions we are having now. I wrote this column because of a conversation I had with a business friend who told me he lost a job candidate because of the Internet. Coincidentally, I attended a luncheon today and the CEO of a non-profit told me he could relate to the column. He also lost a job candidate because of the Internet. I think this is a real problem. I welcome your feedback.

  3. The number one barrier to recruiting educated difference makers to Alabama is the negative national publicity due to the antics of our political class. This is true in both academia and business.

  4. In response to Will above… huh? ok…

    Allan, are you saying people don’t want to come to Alabama because it’s a conservative state? What say ye then about Tenneseee? Texas? Florida?

    David, you’re spot on though, Googling Birmingham is NOT representative of the metro. I never compare cities because the lines are arbitrarily drawn. Unfortunately though, it still doesn’t fare well even when comparing metro to metro.

    Interestingly enough, i did some research and I’m very surprised that Birmingham is NOT found on these lists. Something appears wrong here as if someone scrubbed Birmingham’s data from the database. Why wouldn’t Birmingham be included on any of these:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_crime_rate

    https://www.statista.com/statistics/433603/us-metropolitan-areas-with-the-highest-violent-crime-rate/

    https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/tables/table-4

    Most every other large and small metro is included, but you won’t find Birmingham unless I’m just going crazy. Strange and makes you wonder what’s up.

    1. Brett — I was at an event a couple of days ago where I chatted with a young man who is one of Birmingham’s most successful entrepreneurs and he told me about the difficulty getting software engineers to move here. His strategy is now focused on getting people who grew up here to move back. Second, the Alabama legislature shoots us in the foot (or perhaps head) repeatedly. You may call it “conservative” I would call it something else.

      1. Well they sure don’t have a problem getting people to move to other very conservative states. Heck, that’s a reason TO move to Alabama, because it’s conservative. Easier to make and keep your money – less tax and red tape. No one doesn’t move to Alabama because they morally disagree with conservative issues. When is the last time an Engineer DIDN’T move to Alabama because they kinda frown on abortion and such? It has nothing to do with Conservative politics (again, explain Florida then) and way more to do with lack of opportunity and the state just doesn’t have a big appeal to it other than low cost of living (comparatively speaking of course).

        1. Two significant obstructions to living in Birmingham, one is state wide 1. Birmingham’s ‘occupational tax’ and the other the level of income that starts to kick in to pay state income tax.

          Neither Tennessee or Florida have these. A few years ago, Florida even got rid of inheritance tax.

          I will tell you one other thing about Florida. It is decreasingly pleasant to live in its extremely sprawled urban areas.

          As for telling the Birmingham story, its condition: think of it being a city of many cities, giving many choices for those who might consider moving to the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan area. I ask why not?

          1. Wasn’t Birmingham’s occupational tax repealed about 10 years ago? It should be restored. People who live in the suburbs should pay something to work in Birmingham, which does not have an adequate tax base because a lot of the population is impoverished.

    2. If this country breaks up, which it may, states like Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida will decline economically. Maybe Texas as well. Alabama, Tennessee and Florida depend on the US government (basically the blue states) to take care of their poor people. Texas doesn’t because it is a much more dynamic economy, but it is dynamic because it sucks good jobs out of blue states that have better worker and environmental protections and are therefore more expensive to do business in. If those four states made up part of another country, they would lose their connection to Wall Street. Investment in them would go down. They would turn into nasty, highly judgmental places where people wouldn’t want to locate businesses.

  5. Alabama has a negative image overall because the head of our government is what the world see as back wood rednecks who will never change. Look what we have to represent us a dip chewing governor who only once prison instead of prison reform. We breed rednecks in Alabama.

  6. Well to me a lot of Alabamians live in the past. They seem to have not learnt from the past or they believe everything was wonderful. The state is almost dead last in education, health care for families and children. And as far as obesity at the top, illiteracy at the top. For conservative values, just another way of saying I know better than you what you should do and I’m not going to let you do anything g different. No matter if it would benefit the state or not. A prime example medicaid expansion was not done. So doctors left and rural hospitals closed down. Birmingham gets the credit for the bad that others see about Alabama. As long as there is no ho.e rule and the good Ole Boy club runs the state, Birmingham will continue to get the short side of the stick to say. It is 2022 and most conservative (white) Alabamians think that anything progressive is liberal and wrong. As long as you have certain people that can’t see any wrong in Alabamian in charge it will get worse not better.

    1. Wow! The left wing of Control Freaks Unanimous doesn’t like what the right wing of Control Freaks Unanimous is controlling. Consider changing to Libertarian. Among other things, we propose that the parents of each child be given education vouchers so that parents can have more control over what their children learn and they can compete in the world.

  7. David,
    It seems you are focused on the marketing of Birmingham and not the issues the city faces. Why not instead focus on the ROOT CAUSES of safety, obesity, and poverty rather then argue about what other people think of us. Birmingham does have issues with safety, obesity, and poverty. Birmingham does have a great foodie scene and parks/entertainment. But reality is that people are leaving the city for the suburbs due to issues of poor schools, safety, and better services. Maybe we should actually care more about and work harder to address our faults than worry about how others view us. You can market Birmingham all you want but if you are willing to address REAL issues then it is all for naught.

    1. John, I totally agree with you. We should focus on he ROOT CAUSES on the above and that is the objective of ComebackTown. We have published over 500 columns over the past 10 years to create a conversation on these varied topics. You are correct if we aren’t willing to address REAL issues then it is all for naught.

  8. David, I often have conversations with my family members and friends about this very subject matter. If you are going to compare cities just simply do so using the old fashion apples to apples and oranges to oranges method. Since there are cities that combine their statistics with their metro areas why not simply highlight this so that it will be a better understanding of the methodology of these statistics. Some of these cities whose crime rates are lower than Birmingham, when you review their rates with only the city proper boundaries, often their crime rates are actually higher than Birmingham. There is no bashing or animosity in my comments at all, I’m just simply stating a fact of how statistics can be very misleading. It’s ironic that many who once had negative perceptions of Birmingham not only changed their mines but they actually become some of Birmingham’s best advocates for selling the city.

  9. David, you do a great job with this site and column. I don’t like the comments telling you what you should have done etc.. I know you don’t ignore the ROOT CAUSES.. This particular piece is simply dedicated to what a quick Google search finds AND to educate us on how to question statistics. It reminds us that statistics are only good within correct context.

    To all, David is well aware of the issues/problems that plague Birmingham and he’s been one of the few people honest enough to admit many of these problems.

    1. Brett C, you are my new ‘best’ friend. Thanks for the positive feedback. I appreciate all comments–both positive and negative–that is how I learn. But please feel free to post positive comments often. 🙂

    2. I agree with you Brett, 100%.

      David, you are doing a great job with this. What you have is an amazing gathering of ideas, information, and responses. If negative contributors can include at least some idea about a reasonable solution to the problem, they could be much more helpful. At least we often see responses that try to help in that way. Thank you for having created this opportunity David! This can become the spark that relights our favorite city.

  10. I will save this. The Birmingham Metro area is exactly how they wanted it. They abandoned it in the ’60s after the civil Rights movement and expanded their fiefdom around it. They didn’t want to be associated with Birmingham but their businesses and money were made from Birmingham and the name Birmingham but their revenue was pulled to those little fiefdoms. As long as African Americans have political power in the city of Birmingham, it will continue to be this way and things will change only with the county system because that will shift the power back to the other side. Until this bleeding is resolved these companies do not deserve those benefits. Great article, but still more of a feint at the real root cause of the issues of Jeffco, Al

    1. Jay B wrote: “As long as African Americans have political power in the city of Birmingham, it will continue to be this way and things will change only with the county system because that will shift the power back to the other side.” I think I like what you are saying, but I don’t quite understand that sentence. What is “the other side”? Whites? What change are you expecting with the county system?

  11. I think this article underscores the importance of branding and SEO in today’s world. Nowadays people tend to use search engines for anything and everything- including finding their next destination to move/travel to. Unfortunately, from an SEO perspective, Birmingham isn’t doing very well. The “negative” article tend to generate the most amount of online engagement, and thus are boosted to top of search results (among many other factors, I am being simplistic).

    This is a problem for a lot of businesses, especially those recovering from bad press online.

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