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Google’s Response To Weekend Glitch: ‘We’re Only Human’

Monday, February 2, 2009

While its business may reside in the virtual world, Internet search giant Google isn’t immune to human error once in awhile.

The No. 1 search engine says on Saturday morning staff incorrectly expanded a security message to all URLs served up by the search engine. Therefore, each and every web site in a search result delivered the message “This site may harm your computer"—even those that were safe.

“This was clearly an error, and we are very sorry for the inconvenience caused to our users,” Marissa Mayer, vice president, search products and user experience for Google wrote in a blog post on Saturday around noon ET.

Google says it flags results with the message if the site is known to install malicious software. “We maintain a list of such sites through both manual and automated methods. We work with a non-profit called StopBadware.org to come up with criteria for maintaining this list, and to provide simple processes for webmasters to remove their site from the list.”

However, when Google staff completed a routine update of the list, the coding identifying sites as dangerous was accidently rolled out to all web sites.

“Fortunately, our on-call site reliability team found the problem quickly and reverted the file. Since we push these updates in a staggered and rolling fashion, the errors began appearing between 6:27 a.m. and 6:40 a.m. (PST) and began disappearing between 7:10 and 7:25 a.m., (PST) so the duration of the problem for any particular user was approximately 40 minutes.”

Retailers surveyed by Internet Retailer overall experienced little negative impact from the glitch. A spokeswoman for gift e-retailer Uncommon Goods, No. 461 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide says its marketing team was aware of the Google incident but did not notice any impact on site activity or receive customer feedback about it.

The Home Depot also did not notice any changes with the hiccup. “It doesn’t seem like it was a big deal here. Probably because Saturdays are a much busier time in our stores vs. online,” says a spokeswoman for the retailer, which is No. 42 in the Guide.

Drugstore.com also did not find any problems stemming from the glitch, but added that the time period of the outage on Saturday is not typically a high-traffic time for the retailer.

Additionally, a spokeswoman for Drugstore.com says that a problem with search would be more likely to affect the new customer channel, as new customers more often use the web to search to find a product on Drugstore. Drugstore, No. 41 in the Guide, says it has a larger share of repeat customers who go directly to the web site.

The single retailer reached that did notice natural clicks fell the day of the problem was Abt Electronics. “Natural click-throughs were down that day, but the paid search campaign was up,” says Jon Abt of Abt Electronics, No.157 in the Guide.

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