Google Explains United Airlines Debacle

The people at Google have fleshed out the chain of events that led to the crashing of United Airlines stock yesterday -- and, again, they seem to line up (mostly) in the Sun-Sentinel's favor.

And it all started with a Tribune Co. story from 2002 about UAL's bankruptcy at that time popping up on one of those "Most Viewed" story boxes over the weekend. The site posts a screen capture of business page (Marcia Heroux Pounds' page to be precise) that shows the UAL story as the fifth most viewed story of that day. That got the attention of the God of the Internet, Google.

"[B]ecause the [Google] crawler saw this new link appear," writes Google business product manager Josh Cohen, "it followed it to an article titled 'UAL Files for Bankruptcy.'"

Here's a screen capture of the 2002 story in question:

Now, notice that the article is undated. "The only date found in the context of the article indicated that the article was from September 7, 2008," writes Cohen.

I would beg to disagree. That date clearly isn't for the article, it's obviously just the day's date, connected to the website at large. But Google picked up the article and slapped Saturday's date on it.

On Monday, it was picked up by an over-eager employee at Income Securities Advisors, who splashed it onto the Bloomberg site, and the rest is history.

So you have some big-picture technical glitches and big dose of human error and, voila, you wind up with a stock market crash that led to what might amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in investment losses.

The Sentinel's role, while central, doesn't seem to make them very culpable. Just because their story didn't have a date doesn't mean they should take the blame. It was Google, after all, that apparently put the WRONG date on it. That said, they better make damn sure all their stories are clearly dated from here on out.

Google obviously needs to add some internal controls to make sure this never happens again. As it stands and if all the information is out, it looks like it bears a piece of the blame for this fiasco.

The main culprits, though, are Income Securities Advisors and Bloomberg, as I read it. In effect ISA serves as the reporter for the story and Bloomberg is the publication. The ISA employee, before slapping the story on Bloomberg, should have at least, um, read it. Poor Bloomberg is a passive culprit in this, but a culprit nonetheless. It too is going to have to seriously overhaul the procedures on its massively influential website to make sure this doesn't happen again.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman