Image by andrewwinn via Flickr
Here’s today’s column that originally ran in MediaPost.
This Google May Harm Your Computer
Where were you the day Google turned against its users?
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.
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.
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
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
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
How Bad Was This?
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).
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 to Google.
In Google We Trust
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
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.