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Google mix-up caused $1 billion run on United

Big Slick

Well-known member
Oct 18, 2004
Total Time
Probe into how Google mix-up caused $1 billion run on United

The US Securities and Exchange Commission has opened a "preliminary inquiry" into how an outdated bankruptcy story sparked a $1 billion run on an airline’s stock value.
The article about how United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002 was revived when it showed up on a newspaper site’s “most viewed” section on Monday.
From there it was picked up by Google News and later seen by alarmed stockholders. The stock plunged from around $12 to just $3 a share before trading was halted.
The Chicago-based company’s shares did not fully recover once trading resumed on Monday, and were still down at just over $11 dollars at close of trading yesterday.
With the possiblity of legal action in the air, those involved have been hotly disputing who was to blame.
The errors provide a salutary lesson for investors of the power and perils of computer automation and throw a spotlight on Google’s News search technology which, using “Googlebot” algorithms, scours web pages in search of news articles.
To many, the episode has been a reminder that computer programs, no matter how sophisticated, can be a poor substitute for human beings.
The comedy of errors began with just one reader who went to the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s website and viewed a 2002 article on United Airlines’ bankruptcy.
That single visit in the early hours of Sunday morning, a period of low traffic, apparently bumped it into a "Popular Stories" in the business section.
At 1:37am, an electronic Google program swept through the paper’s website for new stories and spotted the link.
Google says its program scanned the piece and, seeing there was no 2002 dateline, indexed the article for inclusion on its news pages.
Three minutes and two seconds later, Google News readers started viewing the story on the Sun Sentinel’s Web site.
A Florida investment firm found the story on Monday morning with a Google search and posted a summary on the Bloomberg financial information service.
That visibility - Bloomberg is seen by thousands of investment managers and traders - sparked the run on United shares.
What is in dispute between Tribune, the owners of the Sun Sentinel, and Google is whether the Googlebot should have known it was an old story.
Tribune said the story was not republished, and the link was simply a link to the archive version of the story.
Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker said that the only date the automated Google News software found on the Sun Sentinel site was from early Sunday eastern time.
“In the same way that the reader was unable to determine the original date, our search algorithm was similarly misled by that date," Mr Stricker said.
Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman said other clues would have made it clear to a human reader that the story was old, including a reference to UAL’s 97-cent share price (it was trading around $12 on Monday) and comments from readers further down the page that were posted in 2002.
"It appears that no one who passed this story along actually bothered to read the story itself,” he said.
“Despite the company’s earlier request and the confusion caused by Googlebot and Google News earlier this week, we believe that Googlebot continues to misclassify stories," Tribune said.
The investment newsletter that posted a summary of the story to Bloomberg, Income Securities Advisors Inc. in Florida, has also said there was nothing on the Sun Sentinel website to indicate that the story was old.
The page also fooled Bloomberg. Bloomberg News staffers posted headlines noting first the UAL share price drop, and then, at 1106 a.m. EDT, a bankruptcy denial from United.
A different Bloomberg News staffer working the story found the bankruptcy story on the Sun Sentinel site and, at 1107a.m., posted a headline about the bankruptcy.
Investors then dumped the stock at a huge rate and here algorithms again played their part.
Experts said the automated trading programs were applied to the trading of shares based on market-moving information trawled from the internet.
Last year, algorithms handled some 30 percent of all equity trading volume, according to a recent study by Aite Group.
The study projected that algorithms would grow to handle half of equity trading by 2010, and noted similar growth in derivatives and other asset classes as a hunger for faster trading grows.
The lack of confidence investors have in the troubled US airline industry also undoubtedly played its part in the stock drop.
Investors mistakenly figured that United Airlines, having filed for bankruptcy once, was more likely to do it again.
United is still considering what, if anything, to do about the affair.

Remember on Airplane when Johnny pulls the plug on the approach lights? "Oh, Sorry!"


Well-known member
Nov 29, 2001
Total Time
Follow the money. Somebody make a killin' off this. I doubt it was inadvertent.