Google’s Approach to Managing Disclosure of Search Incidents

  • June 10, 2024
  • SEO
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In the latest episode of Google’s “Search Off The Record” podcast, experts delved into various examples of disruptive incidents that can impact crawling and indexing processes. They also discussed the criteria for determining whether or not to disclose the specifics of what transpired.

One challenge in issuing statements is the occasional discrepancy between the perceptions of SEOs and publishers—who may believe that Search is malfunctioning—and Google’s perspective, which often indicates that services are functioning as intended.

Google Search Ensures High Uptime

During the podcast, it was noted that Google Search’s homepage, known for its search box, has an exceptional uptime rate, making it extremely rare for the service to become unavailable. Most reported issues are attributable to network routing problems on the Internet rather than internal failures within Google’s infrastructure.

Gary Illyes highlighted this point:

“Yeah, the service that hosts the homepage is the same that hosts the Google Search Status Dashboard, and it boasts a remarkable uptime percentage, approximately 99.999%.”

John Mueller humorously added by saying “nein” (the German word for “no”), sounding like the number nine:

“Nein. It’s never down. Nein.”

The team acknowledged that, although the Google Search frontend maintains high availability, the backend does experience occasional outages. They explained the protocols in place to manage these disruptions.

Handling Crawling and Indexing Incidents

Google’s ability to crawl and index web pages is crucial for SEO and business revenues. Interruptions can have serious consequences, especially for time-sensitive content such as announcements, news articles, and promotions.

Gary Illyes elaborated on the role of Google’s Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) team, which ensures the smooth operation of public-facing systems, including Google Search, Ads, Gmail, and YouTube. Google’s SRE subdomain describes their approach, treating operational issues similarly to software problems. The SRE team addresses issues ranging from individual bugs to large-scale disruptions impacting billions of users.

Gary Illyes explained (at the 3:18-minute mark):

“The Site Reliability Engineering organization publishes their playbook on incident management. Many incidents are detected by automated processes. There are probes and monitoring software that trigger alerts when anomalies are detected. These alerts are then managed through incident management software.”

February 2024 Indexing Issue

Gary Illyes provided an example of how Google monitors and responds to incidents that might affect search users, citing the February 2024 indexing problem. Part of the response involves determining whether the issue is an actual problem or a false positive.

He explained:

“On February 1st, an anomaly triggered an automated internal incident. The team had to assess whether it was a false positive or a genuine issue. They deemed it a valid problem and upgraded its priority from minor to medium. Higher-priority incidents are flagged to relevant teams for further investigation.”

Minor Incidents and Public Disclosure

Gary Illyes noted that not all incidents are communicated publicly because many don’t significantly impact users. Only incidents that affect user experience are given higher priority.

Google prioritizes transparency when user experience is notably degraded. While Gary could not specify the exact number of affected users needed to trigger a public statement, he emphasized that user impact is the primary measure for escalation.

He elaborated:

“SRE investigates all alerts. If an alert indicates an issue affecting users, its priority is automatically elevated due to the potential user impact.”

Case Study: Disappearing Images

Gary shared an incident involving missing images. They decided against issuing a public statement because, while user experience was affected, it wasn’t severe enough to render Google Search unusable. Users could still access the needed information without the images. This situation resembled issues faced by recipe bloggers when their images disappear from search results.

He explained:

“Recently, an incident led to some images being unavailable. I argued against externalizing this issue since users could still find the information they needed despite the missing images. It felt like a throwback to a time when search results didn’t include images, yet remained usable.”

Do Publishers & SEOs Factor In?

John Mueller questioned if the threshold for public announcements included the experiences of publishers and SEOs, not just end-users.

Gary responded at around the 8-minute mark:

“As part of Search Relations, our focus is primarily on end-users. However, site owners also care about their users’ experiences, making it essentially the same audience we consider.”

This response might surprise some in the SEO community, as Google’s documentation for the Search Off The Record podcast positions the Search Relations team as aiding site owners in succeeding on Google Search.

“As the Search Relations team at Google, we’re here to help site owners be successful with their websites in Google Search.”

Throughout the podcast, it’s evident that John Mueller and Lizzi Sassman are committed to engaging with the search community. Gary’s remark could be interpreted as a difference in linguistic expression.

Defining Search Relations

Google’s process for deciding on disclosures about search disruptions is logical and customer-focused. However, it’s crucial to recognize that “relations” implies a connection and interaction between multiple parties. In the context of search, this ecosystem involves content creators (SEOs and site owners) and Google, the medium through which content reaches users.

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Khosro

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