Where were you the day Google turned against its users?
If you were lucky, you were sleeping in. It happened Saturday, Jan. 31 at 6:30 a.m. in Mountain View, Calif., 9:30 a.m. in New York, 4:30 p.m. in Jerusalem, 8 p.m. in Delhi, and 10:30 p.m. in Beijing. Checking my own Google Web History, I entered my first query of the morning at 10:27 a.m. EST (looking up driving directions for a wedding that night), two minutes after the last of Google's users encountered a problem.
It wasn't a full-day breakdown; it was 40 minutes rolled out during an hour-long window. During that time, any Google search triggered the warning "This site may harm your computer" for every result. That day, five of the top 25 listings in Google Hot Trends were related to the glitch, including numbers one and three.
So what did we learn from this? Google needs to learn the most; it provides little value for its users and advertisers when it scares everyone away from surfing the Web. What about the rest of us though? Here are a few thoughts:
Google is Global
There are few unifying global forces with greater appeal than Google. ComScore reports that in December 2008, Google sites reached 77% of the world's online audience, or 776 million people. The day's not far off when there will be more Googlers than there will be Indians or Chinese. To that point, if there's a catastrophe in Delhi, it might take time for the effects to ripple out to the eastern state of Assam, but when there's a catastrophe in Mountain View, the whole world can feel the impact at once.
While in Israel seven years ago, I experienced New Year's Eve as a meaningful event for the first time. Israelis in their 20s told me that it was their favorite holiday of the year -- not the national Independence Day or the festive Jewish holiday of Purim -- because it was the one day they were celebrating with everyone else around the world. Google has that similar way of crossing boundaries. Now, I may be searching for the text of President Obama's inauguration address and someone else may be entering the query "death to America" (mercifully, a phrase with scant activity in Google Trends ), but at least we can have some common ground.
We Need Options
A telling comment came from the user "someguy" on Silicon Alley Insider. He wrote, "I was using Google at that time and it happened to me! I was very confused, but gave up and tried again later and everything was fine. You know, the odd question is: Why didn't I just try to use another search engine?"
Why didn't you, someguy? It's probably because you're fairly typical, at least as far as U.S. Internet users go. Check out Compete's 2008 trends for Exhibit A, slide 5 in particular. Google's users are two and a half times as loyal as Yahoo's, and they're about five times as loyal as the users of Live Search, Ask.com, and AOL. When Google's on the fritz, it's like when your favorite TV news network suffers an outage when they're airing the weather. Sure, you could check out 10 other networks, but enough people will probably think, "Ehh, I'll look out the window."
It's in everyone's best interests, except perhaps Google's, to have robust competition among search engines in every country. This is more of a prayer than an action item; I don't want to start giving out alms to needy engines, nor would I lobby for a search engine bailout. But I hope that just as Google weathered the dot-com bust nearly a decade ago to emerge as one of the world's most heralded businesses, this economic downturn will reignite search competition. Even that may not be enough in the short term to encourage consumers to consider alternatives.
How Bad Was This?
In Google Blog Search, there were 5,523 references to "this site may harm your computer" and "Google" from Saturday through Monday afternoon, when this column was being written. Combining that search with other terms, 2,189 included "error" (40%), 1,022 included "glitch," 430 included "bug," 88 included "meltdown," 27 included "blunder," 8 included "tragedy," and 5 included "catastrophe." As a control, 7 included "ice cream" and none included "emu" (as for the former, Google also scans other content on the page such as article roundups and comments, so some false positives tend to appear).
This column's headline and lede aside, the coverage of what happened was largely free of melodrama. It was an error, glitch, or a bug that could happen to anyone, and this time it happened
In Google We Trust
We continually trust that Google will bring us safely to our destinations and keep our computers free from harm. When Google tells us it's protecting us, our first instinct is to believe it. That's why it's so frightening for all other publishers to have Google label their sites as harmful.
Google can afford a few glitches. The danger is if it cries wolf too often, then all of its warnings will be for naught, and the erosion of trust will extend far beyond Google.
That would be a catastrophe, but that hasn't happened. This was just a glitch.