Did Malware Gaffe Dim Google’s Glow?

Anyone using Google between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. EST on Saturday saw an interesting message pop up alongside nearly all their search results: “This site may harm your computer.” Users may indeed know that Web sites sometimes harbor suspicious computer code that can dump spyware or worse on their computers, and that Google will raise a red flag for its customers when it finds such a Web site in search results.

But nearly every search result?

It was a mistake, and those who keep an eye on Google and the technology industry are searching for the answer to this question: Did a coding error on the part of the world’s most popular search engine — and the resulting publicity — harm the company’s trust with users?

“This was clearly an error, and we are very sorry for the inconvenience caused to our users,” Google vice president Marisa Meyer said in an Official Google Blog posting at 12:02 p.m. Eastern Saturday. “What happened? Very simply, human error.”

A Tangled Web of Explanations

The initial effort on the part of Google to explain what happened and provide transparency only clouded the issue further. In her first blog post, Meyer explained that Google tracks Web sites that are known to install malware, and that it received its list of harmful sites from a non-profit organization, StopBadware.org. But a StopBadware Blog posting dated 12:31 p.m. EST said that wasn’t the case: “Google has posted an update on their official blog that erroneously states that Google gets its list of URLs from us. This is not accurate. Google generates its own list of badware URLs, and no data that we generate is supposed to affect the warnings in Google’s search listings. We are attempting to work with Google to clarify their statement.”

Ten minutes later, StopBadware’s Maxim Weinstein said contrary to some media reports, Google did not take down all site warnings, even for those Web sites which did carry malware.

Meyer updated the Google Blog at 1:29 p.m. EST with this posting: “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.” In the process of updating the list, a rogue slash (/) found its way into the coding process, and as a result all Web search results were tagged as harmful.

Meyer said users would have noticed the problem for 40 minutes, and that a company response team went into action as soon as the error was discovered. “We will carefully investigate this incident and put more robust file checks in place to prevent it from happening again.”

Can Google Be Trusted?

“I think what it says about Google is that competition is a good thing,” industry analyst Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group, told TechNewsWorld. “Relying on one company for all our information — at some point you put your trust in them to do the right thing to have viable information to make it all work for you.”

Li, co-author of Groundswell, which details how Web 2.0 tools can help companies connect with customers, gave Google credit for using its blog to transmit updates on the situation, even though her own experiences using Google on Saturday morning left her a little cold. “I heard nothing. There was nothing available anywhere. Even if you clicked on a link, it just had a 404 error page,” she said.

“The fact that they’re being open and transparent about it, and posted on their blog, is very responsible. Those are all meant to build trust.”

“How can that happen to a multi-billion-dollar company?” was IDC analyst Karsten Weide’s first thought when he heard about the error. “How can somebody bust the code and then they don’t catch it before it goes live, that’s what I’m thinking.”

Competition is the great equalizer in this situation, Weide told TechNewsWorld. “People think Google is the only game in town, but it’s not true. It’s not like somebody turned off your water or your electricity. You would go to Yahoo or Live Search. The industry tests for developing search results show that Yahoo is just as good as Google, Live Search is almost as good as Google.”

The incident throws a big spotlight on Google’s reach and how many people rely on its search capabilities at any given time.

“I think it’s the scale at which Google dominates, and with that scale, that power to influence what people see,” Li said. “It also becomes a tremendous responsibility to get it right, because of the trust embedded in them.”

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