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Google’s mistake – Human error resulted in “This site may harm your computer” on all search results

Google’s mistake – Human error resulted in “This site may harm your computer” on all search results

It’s indeed coincidental that only a few days after writing a couple of articles on the “This site may harm your computer” label displayed beside web sites in the Google search engine results, the company blundered in a big way. On January 31, 2009, the safety warning was displayed on all the search results and Google admitted to their mistake. Apparently it was caused by a human error! Now that’s a thought…

According to the Google official blog entry, between 6:30 a.m. PST and 7:25 a.m. PST on the said date, “ This site may harm your computer” was displayed beside all search results. Unfortunately, I missed the show but I had a preview a few days back.

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As per my article on this issue (check the link above), my site had this warning displayed beside it sometime back. I was able to rectify the problem rather quickly so all was well… supposedly. Last Monday, January 26, 2009, when I opened my site in the Google web browser, Chrome displayed its security warning once again! Checking the web site’s listing in the search results however did not show any untoward skip-your-heartbeat message; which I attributed to the delay in indexing the current content. Maybe my site was indeed hacked (again) and it was only a matter of time that the warning “harm-you-computer” would be beside it in the search results.

I checked the source code and there was no malware distributing <iframe> code – but I was really troubled. I came to office to do some “productive” work, not to spend (waste) time in uploading clean pages. However, when I opened other webs sites, I got the same Chrome warning message – even Wikipedia could not be displayed… what was going on?

This, I guess, was only a preview to the big mistake Google was going to commit a week later. Oh, by the way, after a few minutes everything was fine as usual.

How did the web community take to Google’s mistake?

Mistake? Faux pas may be the right word – it was a “web societal blunder”. Here are some emails I received – the italics are mine.

Gilda:
Yes. But today … ALL site are marked this way! What”s going on? I had to access your site through Yahoo.

Larry:
Do you still say “Bravo!” now that your site is tagged as potentially harmful?
Searches are resulting in practically EVERY page stamped with this warning.
Search for Google Web Master Tools and www.google.com/webmasters/tools/ is ITSELF tagged as potentially harmful.

Patrick Kelley:
I have a blog on Blogger’s Blogspot. Not only is it on the list, but so is every site on every page I have seen today. You get sent to a page that repeats the warning and are told you can go to the site from there, but they don’t provide a workable link to do so. Then you see links to other pages, one where you can find out about your site and its position in Google’s rankings, etc., but you have to jump through so many hoops it’s not worth your time, and in fact, half the c*** you are told to do is incomprehensible to me.
Result-I am now a faithful devotee of the Yahoo search engine.
As for this line of bull about how great Google is compared to all the others, sorry but I don’t buy it. I have never turned up a result on Google that I couldn’t get on Yahoo or Ask and for that matter probably any other search engine.

I chose these replies because they illustrate a few important points:

  • The anguish: expected when there is a large scale screw-up as in this case.
  • Ready to move to another search engine: Yahoo! has been mentioned in two of the replies.
  • Google’s domineering position: doesn’t please many. We know Google search engine is the leader and it attained this position because of loyal following that stemmed from relevant results, ease of use etc. But there are some who still “don’t buy it” will continue to use alternates… well, to each his own.

“This site may harm your computer” on all search results – how did this happen?

A human error is what is attributed to the “This site may harm your computer’ warning being displayed for all web sites in the Google search engine.

From the Official Google blog post:

“Google flags search results with the message … if the site is known to install malicious software in the background or otherwise surreptitiously. We do this to protect our users against visiting sites that could harm their computers. 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.

We periodically update that list and released one such update to the site this morning. Unfortunately … the URL of ‘/’ was mistakenly checked in as a value to the file and ‘/’ expands to all URLs. [E]rrors began appearing between 6:27 a.m. and 6:40 a.m. and began disappearing between 7:10 and 7:25 a.m., so the duration of the problem for any particular user was approximately 40 minutes.”

What is the message to be taken from this? Google has a “human element” monitoring the web for the safety of its users and this is heartening to know. To err is human, yep! As we have seen in the case of spam and phishing scans, no amount of automated algorithms can weed out these emails from your inbox. In fact, the best spam and phishing filters are built using a community effort (hence, human).

The second point I like to make here is what’s making people so angry? The warning from Google is a safety measure for the benefit of everyone on the web (ok… only the ones who use the Google search engine). If the company faltered once, should we crucify it for a feature that is helping everyone? Remember, such frequent improvements and tweaks are what made Google the leading search engine.

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