Ed Driscoll

How One Misplaced Character Caused A Google Meltdown

Jesse Newhart writes that for a few hours today, apparently all Google search results displayed the dreaded “This site may harm your computer” message:

As I reported earlier while the news was breaking, at 9:27am eastern, all Google search results appended This site may harm your computer to the top of the listing. The topic was wildly speculated on Twitter as everyone tried to decipher the problem.

At first it was reported that perhaps outsourced malware partner, the non-profit www.stopbadware.org was responsible. Stopbadware.org quickly rectified the confusion with a blog post declaring that it was in fact Google that caused their site to crash as millions of people followed the “This site may harm your computer” links back to their site.

It turns out it was human error at Google, when a likely now fired technitian, entered the ‘/’ character into the database as a component of all URLs that contain malware. Of course there is a ‘/’ in EVERY URL ON THE WEB!!! Matt Cutts describes the problem thusly on The Official Google Blog:

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.

By quickly they meant the problem only lasted one hour. For one hour EVERY PAGE ON THE INTERNET was reported as Malware.

The ‘/’ is truly mightier than the sword.

What does this mean for Google search? I don’t know, but for me it brings Google’s search dominance and lack of any real competition into acute focus.

Indeed–for a time it seemed that Google only added the “This site may harm your computer” tag to conservative Websites. Newhart notes how easy it is for a Google tech to add it to every site’s listing.