Google breaks down, spreads global panic

Minor error shows importance of reliable search engine

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If you ever doubted the power of Google, then a minor snafu late Saturday exposed just how reliant the world is on the California search giant.

Anyone performing a simple search through Google got quite a shock when all results, no matter how innocent, came back marked "This site may harm your computer" - Google's standard designation applied to sites known to peddle malware, viruses and worse.

Online outrage

Although the problem was fixed within about 40 minutes, the almost-instant outpouring of internet outrage spoke volumes about the importance of Google - and its 235 million daily searches - remaining healthy.

Bloggers, Twitterers and journalists alike practically wept with worry about everything from getting information to how online stores might fail if no-one could visit them.

Our bad

As for the problem itself, it stemmed from a third-party list of suspicious sites that someone at Google uploaded wrongly.

The list featured a single entry containing just the character '/', which effectively told the search engine that absolutely all sites should be blacklisted.

Human error

Google Search vice president Marissa Mayer explained: "What happened? Very simply, human error... Fortunately, our on-call site reliability team found the problem quickly."

Almost choking on humble pie, the statement continued: "Our apologies to any of you who were inconvenienced ... 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."

A Google UK spokesman we talked with early on Sunday confirmed the US line that Saturday's fault, "was caused by a human error on Google's part, and we fixed the issue as soon as we became aware of the problem."

Gmail issues

Although the problem has been dealt with, there may be lasting issues. The wonky malware filtering system also directed some legitimate email into Gmail's spam folder.

Google engineer Brad Taylor explained what to do: "We're working to roll out an automated fix to put these legitimate messages back into your inboxes, and we expect this to happen within a day. In the meantime, if you were expecting a critical message this morning, please check your spam folder."