Google Is Only Human – Error Leads to Every Website Declared as Harmful

Yesterday a strange thing happened on the internet – well on Google, but for many, Google *is* the internet. All searches made on the Google search engine were labelled as “This site may harm your computer”. Google kindly places a warning on search results whenever a site appears that has been known to distribute harmful software (i.e. viruses, trojans, spyware etc). This is a great service, as it greatly reduces the number of successful hacking/theft attempts online.

However, yesterday, for a short while, every single result was given a warning label. At first, we thought that Google had gone mad, and decided that the internet was evil after all, and following their “Do Not Evil” mantra, decided to declare all of it so. But no, Google had not gone mad, there was just a slight slip up in implementing the latest datafeed into the dodgy site database. Easily done, human error happens in all companies, and they have fully explained what went wrong. See their explanation here, from Marissa Mayer, VP, Search Products & User Experience:

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.

What happened? Very simply, human error. Google flags search results with the message “This site may harm your computer” 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 (and here’s the human error), the URL of ‘/’ was mistakenly checked in as a value to the file and ‘/’ expands to all URLs. 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. 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.

Thanks to our team for their quick work in finding this. And again, our apologies to any of you who were inconvenienced this morning, and to site owners whose pages were incorrectly labelled. We will carefully investigate this incident and put more robust file checks in place to prevent it from happening again.

Thanks for your understanding.

Update at 10:29 am PST: This post was revised as more precise information became available (changes are in blue). Here’s StopBadware’s explanation.

Posted by Marissa Mayer, VP, Search Products & User Experience

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Well done to Google for not only fixing the problem so quickly, but openly admitting to human error. Google is only human after all.

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