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Google mistakenly warns that search results 'may harm your computer'

January 31, 2009 |  2:03 pm

Google glitchGoogle, known for its reliable search results, freaked out for nearly an hour this morning.

If you slept in, you missed it: From 6:30 a.m. to 7:25 a.m., the Web giant warned that just about every one of the pages it delivered in response to user queries "may harm your computer." Clicking on the link generated an error message.

The quick-thinking bloggers at consulting firm L'Atelier grabbed the screen shot at the right and posted it on Flickr (with a Creative Commons license).

Google apologized for the mistake on the Official Google Blog. Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, explained that Google works with a nonprofit called StopBadware.org to identify Web pages known to install malicious software. On search results pointing to sites believed to be harmful, Google appends the warning, "This site may harm your computer." But this morning, that warning appeared on almost all of its search results delivered to users across the globe.

What happened? "Very simply, human error" in updating that list of harmful sites, Google said:

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.

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.

Google, whose search engine is the most used worldwide, generated nearly $22 billion in advertising revenue last year. It will be interesting to see if Wall Street analysts try to calculate how much money the company lost during the 55 minutes it stopped delivering search results.

-- Chris Gaither

Photo: Mathieu Ramage via Flickr

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