Google’s evil policy on shutting down blogs

By Felix Salmon
January 3, 2010
3,200-word blog entry about a fund group in Australia which has all the appearances of being, he wrote, "qualitatively different and more serious than any previous fund collapse in Australia". He was featured on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald (other SMH stories on this subject are here and here), and his blog was read around the world, partly because it continued his investigation into Paradigm, a fund-management firm owned by Joe Biden's son and brother -- a company which, he wrote, "keep being associated with cases like this". (The Australian fund's chief consultant was the former CEO of Paradigm Global.)

On Sunday, January 3, Hempton's blog -- his entire blog, not just the one blog entry -- disappeared.

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On Saturday, January 2, John Hempton put up a monster 3,200-word blog entry about a fund group in Australia which has all the appearances of being, he wrote, “qualitatively different and more serious than any previous fund collapse in Australia”. He was featured on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald (other SMH stories on this subject are here and here), and his blog was read around the world, partly because it continued his investigation into Paradigm, a fund-management firm owned by Joe Biden’s son and brother — a company which, he wrote, “keep being associated with cases like this”. (The Australian fund’s chief consultant was the former CEO of Paradigm Global.)

On Sunday, January 3, Hempton’s blog — his entire blog, not just the one blog entry — disappeared. Anybody trying to go there now* just gets this message:

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Hempton himself, meanwhile, is faced with this:

Google blocks my blog as spam.JPG

The timing is odd, to say the least, and Hempton suspects that someone complained about his blog, rather than this just being a question of a random false positive in a robot algorithm. Annoyingly, Blogger — which is owned by Google — gives no way of reaching a human being who could see at a glance that the blog is not spam, and turn it back on.

What’s more, Blogger’s robots must be particularly stupid, because Hempton’s blogs have lots of incoming links from reputable locations like Reuters.com, FT.com, and WSJ.com. It’s hard to see what “characteristics of a spam blog” Hempton’s site could possibly have.

This isn’t the first time that Blogger/Google has shut down a prominent financial blogger. In April 2008, the company shut down Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism for ostensibly the exact same reason, and she says that she only got back up and running relatively quickly because she had a personal connection to Google’s vice president of global communications.

It seems like a no-brainer to me that Blogger should not be following a policy of automatically shutting down blogs without a human making that decision when those blogs are getting large numbers of pageviews and incoming links. If Google’s robots think that a popular blog is spam, then that blog should be brought to the attention of a Google employee who can make that determination. There’s no massive rush, in the case of blogs which have been in existence for months or years, to shut down a blog so quickly that a human can’t get involved.

So what’s up here, Google? Why do you shut down high-quality popular blogs so easily, and make it so hard to reinstate them?

*Update: It’s back up. Yay!

Update 2: Google’s Rick Klau, who saw my blog entry and reinstated John’s blog, explains further, and responds to a proposal from John that Google could simply ask suspected spam-bloggers to pass a Captcha test:

We don’t go into great detail about what triggers a takedown, for the very reason you mention: we don’t want to make it easy for spammers to game the system. That said, we also have a number of protections to avoid precisely this situation – before I document what those are, I’ve asked the engineers responsible for maintaining them to explain to me why they didn’t work. Generally speaking, there were a number of indicators for John’s blog that should have very easily avoided any false positive spam classification – and I’m trying to find out how/why those got bypassed.

Rest assured that this is an internal bug – not any external players gaming our abuse reporting to try and take down John’s blog.

John – for restoring access, we actually met just ahead of the holidays to go through several ideas about making the resumption of service for legit blogs caught in a false positive situation (like yours) more seamless. Your idea is quite similar to reCAPTCHA (http://recaptcha.net/) – a service Google purchased in 2009, and one which we will be incorporating into Blogger in Q1. Glad we’re thinking along the same lines.

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