GoogleBot: Slayer of Stock Prices

UAL Corp. had a nasty surprise on Monday when its stock price fell nearly 75% after a computerized chain-reaction caused outdated information to hit the trading floor hard — and UAL's financials even harder.

The trouble all began in 2002, when UAL filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy — which it put behind itself as of 2006. At the time, a number of news outlets including Tribune Co. — owners of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun, among others — reported on the filing, a normal occurrence for a media outlet. From there, all was well, until Sunday, when a Terminator-like rise of the machines set out to ruin UAL.

According to Tribune, a lone reader of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel website triggered the cataclysm after reading the 2002 story. Because Sunday morning is a particularly low-traffic time, this single hit put the story on the site's "Most Popular" list, starting the snowball downhill. A second reader, looking for information about storm-induced airline delays, clicked on the article, at which point the Googlebot got involved. Discovering the story, Googlebot quickly added it to Google News, and as it lacked a publication date, it was quickly pushed out to millions of readers, including Bloomberg LP, the go-to news source for Wall Street.

According to reports, the Bloomberg alert caused automated trading services to drop UAL, resulting in a drop from $12 per share to $3 per share within fifteen minutes. Tribune claims that it is all Google's fault, because they requested that the Googlebot not scrape Tribune sites, a request which they allege Google ignored. Google, however, denies that any such request was ever made. Tribune has responded, saying they can prove what they've alleged.

Whether the Googlebot was supposed to be on the site or not is really immaterial, as the real cause is made clear by an admission printed by Tribune on the very website responsible. "Tribune Co. spokesman Gary Weitman, said a company investigation ... found there was no activity on the story until [Googlebot] visited the Sun-Sentinel site around 10:30 p.m. Pacific time and found the story, which was undated in the archive." (Emphasis ours.)

Had the story been dated by its publisher, Googlebot wouldn't have needed to guess at the publication date, and the people who saw it would have immediately noticed the story was six years out-of-date. Moral of the story? If you're going to be the second-largest newspaper publisher in the U.S., take a cue from the second-grade and write your name and the date at the top of your paper before you hand it in.

O, for want of a date, $300 million was lost.
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