February 08, 2014

What Does Yahoo BOSS Really Think of Cleveland?

We had an interesting problem at work. Any time a user did a location-based search, we returned the same result set: Lakewood, Ohio. It didn’t matter what the user searched by. “Beverly Hills 90210” returned Lakewood, Ohio. “221B Baker Street” returned Lakewood, Ohio. Lakewood is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan Area, and as such we’ll just refer to it as “Cleveland” for the purposes of this essay.

My initial thought: Something is screwed up with caching. Somehow someone did a search on Ohio, and the results somehow got stuck in one of our many caching layers. Subsequent requests kept returning the same cached result. We do have a couple of employees from Ohio, so it wouldn’t be entirely outlandish for a Cleveland-area search the be the first search performed after a caching bug was introduced.

After digging though the code path, it turned out that Yahoo BOSS, our geolocation provider, was returning the same results no matter what location we submitted. Per the documentation, you perform a search by submitting a request formatted as either placefinder?location=<address> or placefinder?q=<address>. Our code was using the location parameter. I tried changing this to the q parameter, and suddenly geolocation requests magically worked.

I made a quick fix to the code, and did something you should never do: I pushed out an untested release directly to production on 6 PM on a Friday. Our test and staging environments don’t do real geolocation since each request costs money. They simply extract the zip code and look that up. It would take a while to get a test environment with real geolocation setup, and changing the word location to q in the bowels of some obscure code didn’t seem likely to bring down the entire site. At worst, location searches would just still be broken. This wouldn’t be any worse than constantly returning Cleveland. What’s the worst that could happen? So I pushed the code.


Of course…

It worked! Problem solved. I entered the weekend breathing a deep sigh of relief. But then I found myself wondering: Why Cleveland? Why, of all the places on Earth, would Yahoo BOSS use Cleveland as the default location for all invalid queries? There are three options I can think of:

  1. Yahoo BOSS considers Cleveland to be the center of the universe. When you don’t provide an appropriate geolocate-able address, it decides it only makes sense to return the center of the universe, the most important place on earth.

  2. Yahoo BOSS somehow knows that Cleveland is some sort of nexus point between dimensions, a.k.a. the Hellmouth.

  3. Yahoo BOSS, after stripping invalid parameters, is left with the impossible job of geolocating the null address. When provided a set of null inputs, it must return the one area on Earth that most ideally represents pure and unending emptiness, the absence of anything and everything, the state of total nothingness. And in its infinite wisdom, it returns Cleveland.

There are simply no other options. Being a Pittsburgher, I have my own opinions on which of the three options is unlikely, which is possible, and which is probable. But I’ll let you decide for yourself.

(As Yakov Smirnoff once said, “In every country, they make fun of city. In U.S. you make fun of Cleveland. In Russia, we make fun of Cleveland.”)