Google’s malware goof – a personal experience and perspective

google-error Over the weekend, Google Search was rendered useless for about an hour on Saturday thanks to human error where every Web page was considered dangerous malware (Information Week has an excellent overview of what happened). Google posted on its search blog about the error. Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products at Google, wrote:

“If you did a Google search between 6:30 a.m. PST and 7:25 a.m. PST this morning, you likely saw that the message “This site may harm your computer” accompanied each and every search result. This was clearly an error, and we are very sorry for the inconvenience caused to our users.”

I was one of those people who was up early on Saturday morning and realized that some pretty bad was happening. I’ve been the victim of malware attacks in the past so immediately ran a Malwarebytes. But nothing serious turned up on my screen. In the meantime, I switched over to Yahoo! Search and couldn’t find any information resembling the attacks. After a while, I went upstairs to get ready, feed the kids (the usual Saturday AM madness) and did some searches on a laptop on my kitchen on Google and saw that everything was working fine. My regular computer was also working fine so I assumed it was just some wacky malware that my security programs finally caught.

It wasn’t until this morning that I realized what was going on, thanks to multiple stories in the press and on blogs that drove the story to the top of Techmeme. (Yes, I was offline most of the weekend so didn’t catch any of the blog, press, or tweets about the mess-up). By now, multiple stories have been written about the Google outage, and wondering about the power that Google wields.

The most interesting perspective was from Larry Dignan at ZDNet, “Google’s flub: Do we have a Web monoculture too?” which points out how dependent much of the Web is on Google. In fact, according to Nielsen Online, 62.9% of all searches in December were done on Google, compared to 16.8% on Yahoo!, and 9.8% on MSN/Windows Live. Monoculture? Let’s just call it plain old dominance.

So hence, the buzz around Google’s failure is justified. I often talk about the amount of trust we put in major online players like Google, captured in the catch-phrase, “In Google I Trust“. I trust Google with many things in my online life, from search and email for my new business, to hosting documents that are mission critical. But Google is only as good as its people — and people are prone to mistakes.

Does this incident erode my trust in Google? Yes, it does. But not to the point where I would switch my allegiances. And to Google’s credit, they addressed the problem quickly and communicated openly about the problem on their blogs.

But for me, that wasn’t enough. I feel somewhat betrayed that the way I found out about the failure was from bloggers and the press, not from Google directly. After all, I have a deep, personal relationship with Google and I was signed in when I did the searches (I can see it in my Web history thanks to Google Desktop Search). I have a Gmail account which was also impacted by the error. I would have really, really appreciated an email with the links to the blog posts explaining what happened.

Beyond a personal need to feel taken care of by Google, there are also concerns that I have about Google’s power, because to paraphrase Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Google decides and dictates what is malware, what is spam, what is worth of inclusion in the top 10 search results. Remember that while an algorithm drives these, people create the algorithm in the first place. And as a society and world, we are putting our trust in the hands of just a few people in Mountain View.

In my mind, it’s one of the strongest reasons to carefully watch new developments around personalized and social search. By diversifying the source of search results to include your own personal search history as well as those in your social network or from people like you will decrease our reliance on individual players like Google.

If you experienced the Google failure on Saturday, I’d like to hear your story and how it impacts your trust in Google.

Comments

  1. Charlene, as always I enjoy your writings, thanks!
    I did not see this happen in real time, but thinking about it a little, I would submit that it is not a big deal. Yes, it would be nice to hear it from the big G about it asap. Their screw ups like that do not happen often enough to awake mistrust in me for the big G. Taking under consideration all of their “FREE” great services they offer for us mere internet junkies, this incident is small.
    Note: your comment box here is broken in Chrome. It goes past the right side of your page, this bugs me more…;-)
    Looking forwad to your next post!

  2. Yes, it is a minor convenience, but it’s interesting to see how it’s impacting Google on the edges. BTW, I use Chrome and comments seem to be working fine. I’ll double check at different resolutions, etc. Ugh.

  3. I too had the ‘pleasure’ of learning that all of the web sites I wanted to visit intended to ‘harm my computer’. After a few attempts, I simply ignored the warning. Perhaps that was a rather cavalier response but I just couldn’t beleive that the entire web was malicious despite Google’s best attempts to tell me otherwise. So much for thier cred.

  4. Charlene,
    It’s an interesting thought that an error would decrease our trust in Google significantly. But, I would challenge that we should be thinking very differently. Google is trusted *because* they continue to innovate. Their algorithms, their rankings, their sources, and their malware prevention. Yes, they goofed, and that as an incident was bad. But, would we prefer the opposite, that they did not continue to push forward with better algorithms and better malware prevention?
    I personally am okay that they tried to move forward, had a hiccup, recovered from it, and kept going. It makes me trust Google more to know that they are continuing to work hard at things like this.

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