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Papillion is the best small town in the United States. Omaha, meanwhile, is the most hungover city, as well as the city with the best zoo. Lincoln is the happiest place in the United States. Bellevue is the 36th-best place to live.
Or so the data say.
These rankings from the past 18 months come from Livability.com, Business Insider, TripAdvisor, Gallup-Healthways and Money magazine, in that order. All of those sites have devoted plenty of energy to ranking various aspects of various communities and regions in recent years.
There have always been lists — U.S. News & World Report first published its annual list of the best colleges and universities in 1983. It added its annual hospital rankings in 1990. Since then, it has added many more — including some extremely specific rankings, such as the best places to retire on less than $40,000 a year and the most affordable places to vacation in the United States.
Over the past half-decade, these rankings have become so popular that they drive about half of the publication's 20 million online hits each month, said Brian Kelly, the publication's editor and chief content officer.
But these days, U.S. News & World Report is far from the only publication ranking extremely specific characteristics of cities across the country.
Livability.com, for example, has put together top-10 lists of the country's most romantic cities, as well as the best towns for barbecue lovers, soccer fans and bibliophiles, among many others.
And in 2008, Gallup, together with Healthways, a well-being improvement company, began surveying about 1,000 adults in the United States each day about their emotional and physical health. Since then, Gallup-Healthways has released dozens of lists each year, ranking about 190 cities across the country on various aspects of their residents' health, including fitness, happiness and job satisfaction, as well as more obscure elements of well-being, such as oral health. (Lincoln ranked ninth in the nation last year in that category, by the way.)
The result is that anyone who spends much time online is likely inundated with lists covering wide-ranging topics — cities with the shortest commute times, the most parks, the highest obesity rates, the lowest costs of living. It's hard to tell if people are actually moving to these communities because of these rankings, but they sure are sharing them on Facebook and Twitter. When local news outlets pick up these stories, people read and share those, too.
“The headline is like catnip,” Kelly said. “People just go for that.”
But lists can be more than just fun fodder for readers or points of pride for cities.
When the methodology is solid, rankings can reveal regional and national trends, said Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
They also can help consumers make decisions about what vacation to take, what colleges to look at or where to live, Kelly said.
“Largely because of the Internet, consumers are becoming researchers,” he said.
They're used to turning to the Internet to find the best of whatever it is they're looking for, whether it's a restaurant or a hospital, Kelly said. Even Google, he pointed out, is essentially a ranking system.
It wasn't a coincidence that U.S. News & World Report expanded its rankings beyond colleges and hospitals about seven years ago.
“It's when the Internet became really dominant,” Kelly said.
Just a few years later, Livability.com began producing lists of the best aspects of mostly small and midsize U.S. cities, places often left off of lists produced by larger, more established publications.
“We're simply looking at things that we think are going to resonate with our readers and lead us to readers we wouldn't see otherwise,” said Livability.com editor Matt Carmichael.
Livability started in 2010, a spin-off of Journal Communications, which provides custom content for economic development agencies and tourism groups, among other agencies, Carmichael said.
The longer Journal Communications worked with tourism boards and economic development groups, the more information the company gathered about the strengths, weaknesses and amenities of various smallish cities, Carmichael said. Livability took that information and began compiling monthly top-10 lists.
“By focusing on small to midsize cities, we tend to hit markets that other people don't,” he said.
Livability's lists — like rankings released by many publications — are developed by journalists and statisticians who analyze data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and other sources. They also look at things such as climate and average commute time. For a list of the best places to raise a family, they'll study, say, performance of local schools or the number of public parks. Sometimes they look at other rankings, too, or talk to experts in whatever area they're ranking.
“There is always some art to the science behind any list like this,” Carmichael said. “And to a certain extent, no matter who you are and what list you're going to put together, it's going to be somewhat arbitrary.”
But that's not a bad thing, in his opinion.
“It think that's kind of part of the beauty of it,” he said. “If it were completely quantitative, it wouldn't be any fun, because you couldn't argue about it.”
And arguing is a big part of the process.
These lists are perfect for sharing on Facebook, Twitter and other social media avenues that tend to facilitate debate, said Todd Ogden, marketing director for the Downtown Lincoln Association.
Before releasing its best downtowns list late last year, Livability contacted Odgen to let him know that Lincoln was on it (the city was in the seventh spot). The Downtown Lincoln Association announced the news on Facebook and immediately saw the likes, shares and comments roll in (mostly good, with a few disses, too). Local news outlets picked up the story, which drove more social media traffic and more comments.
“It really picked up steam very quickly,” Ogden said.
Wendy Richey, president of the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce, has noticed the same thing.
Sarpy County has been well-represented on several recent lists — Livability recently ranked Papillion the best small town in America, and Bloomberg Businessweek named the community the best place in Nebraska to raise children.
Livability rated Papillion Days as the ninth-best U.S. city festival.
Every time another list comes out, Richey said, her phone begins to ring. Often the callers are people from out of town or out of state looking to relocate. Sometimes they tell her that they had never heard of Papillion prior to seeing the ranking.
“Those surveys do have a direct impact on people wanting to live here,” she said.
Whether they actually draw new people to town is more difficult to measure. Richey didn't know of anyone who had moved to Sarpy County specifically because they had seen a list extolling the virtues of the area.
Ogden isn't exactly sure what the rankings mean for communities, either.
On one hand, he's confident that inclusion on the best downtowns list raised awareness of the restaurants, art galleries, music venues, bars, new arena and other attributes of downtown Lincoln. The Downtown Lincoln Association and other community organizations have included the ranking in marketing materials.
But Ogden is unaware of any businesses that have moved downtown or opened a downtown branch specifically because of the ranking. And it's hard to say whether the ranking will influence future development.
He still thinks the rankings are important, however — particularly to the people who live there.
“A lot of Lincoln's benefits are not really tangible,” he said. “It's always been hard to put that on paper. There's no ocean. There are no mountains.”
Seeing Lincoln — or Papillion or Bellevue or Omaha or some similarly non-exotic community — on one of those lists is validating for residents, he said.
And people are competitive, said Witters of Gallup. They like lists because they like seeing how their hometown (or their favorite vacation spot or their college town) measures up.
The Gallup-Healthways well-being survey is intended in large part to give city leaders a sense of how their communities perform healthwise, he said. He believes the survey has been effective; he's often asked to speak to city officials and at wellness conferences about survey findings, particularly in cities that score high or low on any given list.
He, too, has noticed the conversations the rankings generate — sometimes heated ones in the comments sections of news stories — as well as the sheer number of hits they receive. Many of the lists are so widely distributed that Gallup-Healthways doesn't even attempt to track mentions on smaller blogs and similar sites because there are just too many.
And while it's possible that some of the data the survey generates gets lost amid those headlines Kelly described as “catnip,” Witters is glad the information is reaching so many people.
“The ultimate goal is to create an informed and active citizenry regarding our well-being,” he said.
Livability's rankings tend to inspire pride in the cities they highlight as much as anything else, Carmichael said. And he thinks that's a good thing, too.
“If you do the list right, especially, people do take pride in that,” he said, “and they do put that feather in their cap.”
In the time he's worked at Livability, Carmichael has noticed that some cities — Papillion, for example — rank well over and over again.
Much of that is because of tangible, quantitative things — climate, education, crime rate, cost of living, city infrastructure and access to arts and climate. All factor heavily into many different rankings.
But one other factor — one that's difficult to measure — also figures into how various cities rate.
“People will put up with deficiencies in pretty much all of the other things if their friends and family are nearby,” he said.
Ranking Sarpy County
• Papillion, best place to raise children in Nebraska, Bloomberg Businessweek
• Papillion Days, ninth-best city festival in the United States, Livability.com
• Papillion, best small town in America, Livability.com
• Papillion, fifth-best place to live in America, Money Magazine
• Bellevue, 36th best place to live in America, Money Magazine
• Bellevue University, third-best university for veterans to earn an online degree, U.S. News and World Report
• Sarpy County, 11th best level of job growth, Money Magazine
• Omaha, fourth-best spring break spot for families, Livability.com
• Omaha, fifth-best live-music scene in the nation, Livability.com
• Omaha, top-10 city for keeping New Year's resolutions, Livability.com
• Omaha, most hungover city in the nation, Businessinsider.com
• Creighton University, best Midwestern university, U.S. News and World Report
• University of Nebraska at Omaha, fifth-best university for veteran to earn an online degree, U.S. News and World Report
• Henry Doorly Zoo, Best Zoo in America, TripAdvisor
• Lincoln, seventh-best downtown in the nation, Livability.com
• Lincoln, happiest city in the United States, Gallup