September 13, 2008

How Google destroyed $1 billion of United Airlines

by Brian Turner

There are few better reasons for keeping careful control of your content than the story of how Google News left United Airlines losing $1billion in share value.

The situation:

- The South Florida Sun Sentinel website has a “most read today feature”
- The South Florida Sun Sentinel website is crawled by the Google News bot
- The South Florida Sun Sentinel website does not date-stamp its news

Uh-oh. Annoying for users, really – but then a farce kicks in:

- on Sunday 7th September, at 1:32am EST, a single view at this low traffic period of a certain article sent it to the most popular list
- Google’s newsbot happened to be on the site, found the story, and published it in its index
- Because there was no time stamp on the story, Google couldn’t tell it was an out of date archive story

And then the comedy of errors:

- The story was from 2002, about United Airlines filing for bankruptcy
- The story was picked up by an investment company in Florida via news alerts on Monday morning, and they forwarded this on to Bloomberg thinking it breaking news
- Because there was no date stamp on the story, Bloomberg reported it across their network as breaking news

Within minutes of the story breaking, shares in United Air Lines group plummeted from $12 a share to $3.72 as investors panicked and sold up quick.

You can see the massive dip on the following image from Google Finance. The flat line is where trading was automatically halted:

Of course, the fault wasn’t Google’s – but a number of very embarrassed people at the South Florida Sun Sentinel and Bloomberg are trying to push the blame at Google’s newsbot.

The moral of the story?

Take proper care of how your own content is published and indexed, and ensure any pointers such as dates are clearly shown – especially for news stories – because it’s good for human users.

Because if they can’t tell how recent your published material is, how on earth will Googlebot?

In the meantime, yet another example of journalists failing to even try to check up on a story.

Discuss this in the Internet Business forums

Story link: How Google destroyed $1 billion of United Airlines


3 Responses to “How Google destroyed $1 billion of United Airlines”

  1. Timothy on September 14th, 2008 12:35 am

    I’m sorry, but most of the analysis I’m seeing all over the internet doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Google has a piece of software. Everyone knows how it works, and that it sometimes gets things wrong.

    Tribune has a piece of software too. My guess is that it was designed prior to Google News. It may be annoying, but they’re under no obligation to cater what they do to Google’s software. Additionally, in any event Tribune isn’t responsible for anything Google does with their information.

    The humans here were at this finance newsletter company and especially at Bloomberg. No one’s saying they sold the stock because of a story in the Florida Sun-Sentinel. They’re saying they sold because the story was in Bloomberg, who they trust to verify information prior to publishing it.

    Why is the spotlight not on Bloomberg here?

  2. Brian Turner on September 14th, 2008 8:26 pm

    I agree – I really can’t take seriously attempts to blame Google on this one. :)

  3. david on September 11th, 2009 10:30 pm

    What a joke to place the blame on a bot! I can imagine the potential for a local rag in south florida not catching this, but Bloomberg – you would think that they would at least do a quick background check and or at least have a modicum of an idea of this major publicly traded company financial state. An embarrassing mistake by this billion dollar news agency that knocks its credibility in the markets!

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