News, views and what I choose to dos




Why Google has a dangerous amount of power – Part 1

Category : Domain names, Internet, Journalism ยท by Jan 9th, 2009

I have long said that Google is going to become the new Microsoft. People forget that Microsoft was once also a poster-child, before its control over the majority of the world’s operating systems turned it into a monster.

The fact is that Google has a dangerous amount of power and it is only a matter of time before that level of power corrupts. The company has gone beyond providing neat, market-changing products for free and has started to dictate what is allowed online through the rules it creates. Again, it is only a matter of time before those rules start being bent in favour of the corporation, rather than the improvement of its products or an improved end-user experience.

So, my first quick example of where Google has a dangerous amount of power. This site – kierenmccarthy.com and my other main site kierenmccarthy.co.uk – have this morning completely disappeared from Google. Last night my sites existed, this morning, they do not.

Why? Is it because I am a cyber-criminal, or because I am posting copyrighted or illicit material? No, it is because I decide to redirect some links from my .co.uk site to my .com site. I was trying to build up awareness of the dotcom site and make it more professional and then turn the .co.uk site into a more personal site. So I have copied the exact same content from my .co.uk site to the .com site and then added in a redirect. I have done this for approximately 20 pages.

And that was enough for Google to completely delist both sites and as a result visitors have plummeted – because a huge number of online users use Google to find material online.

Hijacking

So I do a bit of research and it turns out that redirects are increasingly used by domain hijackers. They hack into the account of a popular domain and then redirect traffic to one of their sites – which they cover in ads (probably using Google Adsense) and then make a profit from.

So Google has instituted some kind of procedure – it is unclear what exactly because it won’t tell you – that attempts to identify this sort of behaviour and then acts (without notice) immediately by cutting all ties. No doubt this is all intended to be in the service of the average Internet user.

Except – and here is the big problem – Google isn’t responding to complaints about where this approach doesn’t work. In fact, from various webmaster pages I have found online, this problem has been going on for at least nine months and no one has heard anything from Google.

Now, even a cursory look at my websites would make it clear that my redirects are entirely legitimate. Except of course, because there are millions of websites out there, Google would have to have several dedicated people just working on this one tiny aspect of the workings of the domain name system in order to fix the problem. Instead what it does is cut you off, and then allow its automated systems to revisit the site at a later date (estimates for this particular breach of Google Rules is 90 days) to see if anything has changed.

Getting away with it

Now Google is not going to dedicate hundreds of employees to doing these administrative tasks because:
a) It doesn’t have to
b) It can claim it is protecting the majority of Internet users
c) It is a for-profit company and there is no financial come back on it

What will happen is that these problems will get bigger, people will sue Google, Google will build a crack team of lawyers and spend more each year knocking down any lawsuits and – if the lawsuits on one particular aspect get too big or too expensive – it will make small changes to its systems.

At some point – the crucial turning point in it becoming the inevitable monster it will become – Google will decide that, despite the risk of lawsuits, it is in the corporation’s wider interests to not make a change that directly impinges Internet users. And after it does that a few times, eventually the US government and the European Union will take it to court – exactly as has happened with Microsoft.

In the meantime however, I am penalised for an entirely legitimate action that has nothing whatsoever to do with Google. I have had no choice but to adjust my behaviour, change what I want to do online in order to fit in with Google Rules. I have killed the redirects – and now I have to see how long it will be before the majority of Internet users are able to see my websites again.

Update: Approximately eight hours after I posted this article about nine hours after I killed my redirects, this website has again been listed in Google.

The redirects were only in place from 10pm to 7am yesterday. So now I’m uncertain about whether to experiment with this a bit and see what the process is.

I’m also pondering whether this blog post itself captured attention or whether it was purely automated. Views and experiences welcome.

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