They're still sparring over who is responsible for an old Chicago Tribune story about United Airlines' filing for bankruptcy being confused for real-time news that wound up on Bloomberg. The mistake caused a mini-panic among investors. The problem, according to Tribune, was that Google's automated search agent "Googleblot" failed to differentiate between breaking news and frequently viewed stories. Big difference. A link to the 2002 bankruptcy story had been created on the Web site of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, another Tribune paper. From the Chicago Tribune's explainer:
Tribune Co. said the story had received a "single visit" about 1 a.m. Eastern time Sunday but because traffic was so light to the site's business section at that hour, one click constituted "most viewed" status. Consequently, a new link was placed in the list of "most viewed" stories on the business page and the Google search crawler picked it up. Google, in its own version of events published Wednesday on a company blog, said the problem began with the Sun Sentinel site. The site had given the United story no date stamp, the blog explained, so the search crawler looked for the only date available — the one that appears on every page of the site next to the Sun Sentinel masthead.
Actually, Google has a point on the date stamp question. It's not unusual to come across news stories that are dateless (though it shouldn’t have taken much sleuthing to figure out that the Tribune story was false). All this, of course, leads to a much larger question: How Google benefits by having all that free content.
Tribune Co. Chairman Sam Zell, who took the company private late last year in a heavily leveraged $8.2 billion transaction, has made no secret of his uneasiness with this relationship. He has complained publicly that Google reaps the benefit of billions of dollars worth of news content without paying a dime. Other newspaper executives have made similar complaints about the search giant's market power. But media experts say they have done little about it because Google-fed traffic is an essential part of the click totals used to attract advertisers.
*The WSJ reports that the SEC has begun a preliminary inquiry into what happened.
The preliminary inquiry comes as the agency has stepped up its efforts to combat the spreading of false rumors across the market. Earlier this year the SEC brought its first case against a short-seller who spread false information about a pending takeover. It has also launched investigations into short selling of Bear Stearns Cos. and Lehman Brothers Holdings stock. "Anytime anyone spreads false information over radio, T.V., Internet message boards or chat rooms, that will raise questions as to whether someone is committing securities fraud," said John Reed Stark, head of the SEC's office of internet enforcement.