Google Glitch: Human Error the Culprit

The Google warning Saturday morning

The Google "warning" Saturday morning

A glitch in the Google search service caused the company to warn users – including me early Saturday morning – that every Web site listed in the results could cause harm to their computer.

While doing a search on Google at that time (yes, my work-life balance has been decimated), I noticed something funny about Google’s results.  Every result included a disclaimer that “[T]his site may harm your computer.”  Fearing a virus or other malware (although I couldn’t see how it could possibly have this effect), I tried several other computers including a Mac running Safari.  All searches, regardless of topic, computer, and browser, returned similar warnings.  In addition, although they were present and highlighted in green, the links to the actual Web sites were not clickable.

The problem seemed to last for about an hour.

Google later acknowledged on its blog that all searches during that time period produced links with the same warning message.

The warning was not limited to English

The warning was not limited to English

“What happened?” Google explained in the blog. “Very simply, human error.”  Unbeknownst to most of us, Google does maintain a list of sites that install malware on visitors’ computers in the background.

The list of sites is periodically updated and Google released an update Saturday morning.  This is where the human error comes in.  A Google employee included the URL of “/” in the list and “/” is part of all URLs.  Google caught this problem fairly quickly; according to the company, the maximum duration of the problem for a given user was ca. 40 minutes.  It seemed to impact  me a bit longer than that but then the problem disappeared.

Fortunately, I made several screen captures of the error for posterity.

Google does have a reputation for an extremely reliable service although errors do creep in from time to time.  Last month, a glitch in Google Maps sent drivers travelling within Staten Island on a 283-kilometer detour to Schenectady.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Clicking on a link led to this page on Saturday.

Clicking on a link led to this page on Saturday.

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