Blown To Bits

A Billion Dollar Search Query Mistake

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 by Hal Abelson

Blown to Bits readers of chapter 4 know that we should stop to think before acting on the information produced by search engines.¬† Yesterday, a Florida stock analyst didn’t stop¬† ‚Äî and United Airlines stock lost 75% of its value, a billion dollars, in 15 minutes.¬† The stock largely recovered, down only 10% by day’s end but investors who sold at the low are stuck; and other airline stocks were affected as well.

Yesterday’s panic was the result the Bloomberg News Wire printing a one-line note about a Florida investment newsletter’s note about an article on the web site of a Florida newspaper reporting that United had filed for bankruptcy.¬† The article, which originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, was accurate reporting, except that it was from 2002, and it was located in the archive section of the Florida paper’s web site.

It seems that an analyst at Income Securities Advisors did a Google search for “bankruptcy 2008”, which turned up the story, and then passed it on without checking it or, one might suspect, without reading it carefully.¬† In the inevitable finger pointing, one of inevitable finger pointees is Google, with the newspaper asking how a link to a 6-year-old story from their archive got returned from a query indicating “2008”.¬† The article didn’t even appear in yesterday’s newspaper, but, as Google points out in its defense, was listed as one of the “most popular” on the paper’s web site, which the Google search engine took as an indication that the article was, well, popular.

One might imagine a more careful search search engire, one that would double check the actual dates of news article, or even identify their original sources.¬† But more to the point, it wouldn’t hurt to have more careful people, especially those who are being paid to supposedly analyze information, not just uncritically accept and pass along the results coughed up by mysterious computer programs.

According to the president of the securities company, his researcher didn’t verify the story before passing it on because, “we are a reading service,” and since the story appeared in the paper “I don’t think that calls for us to check it out.” (As quoted in the Chicago Tribune.)

That’s an interesting view: it’s OK for¬† professional analysts to do their job by typing in search queries and passing on the results without having to apply any judgment.¬† I bet we could get a computer program to do that.¬† We could call it “Google”.

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