It was a programmer's nightmare that might hound Google for some time.
After a single forward slash caused worldwide trouble for the world's most popular search engine on Saturday, analysts started wondering aloud whether Google's rabid users may seriously consider some search alternatives.
"This is a little embarrassing. It's hard to believe that there are no fail-safe systems in place," said John Byrne, a senior analyst with Technology Business Research. "I think it makes everybody step back a little bit and look at the bigger picture. Maybe users and companies are looking around and saying let's find a second source. With companies like ours, that rely everyday on the Internet to do our business, almost all of us are relying on Google for a significant part of the work we do."
For about an hour on Saturday morning, every Google search - for absolutely anything - received the message "this site may harm your computer." Google said it traced the mistake to simple human error.
In a blog post, Marissa Mayer, vice president of Search Products and User Experience at Google, said that a forward slash mark was inadvertently added when Google updated its list of web sites that are known to surreptitiously install malware on users' machines. The forward slash expanded the list of bad Web sites to include all URLs.
"Again, our apologies to any of you who were inconvenienced this morning, and to site owners whose pages were incorrectly labeled," wrote Mayer. "We will carefully investigate this incident and put more robust file checks in place to prevent it from happening again."
Caroline Dangson, an analyst with IDC, noted that a one-hour glitch on Google garners hundreds of headlines because of the company's tremendous market share and impact.
"The frenzy over a one-hour human error shows how dependent we are on Google," she added. "IDC survey data shows that searching is the number one online activity for US consumers and consumers convey the most trust and affinity for Google above all other online Internet brands. However, Google has become so popular and powerful that it cannot afford too many of these "human errors." Consumers have a choice. "
Dan Olds, principal analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group, said Saturday's problem reminded users that they do have a choice - and that's great news for search competitors like Microsoft and struggling Yahoo.
"For a lot of people, Google is their Internet," Olds added. "It was a misstep for Google, but there were other search engines out there that were functioning fine. I ended up using Yahoo and Microsoft search for the first time in a long time and was fine. That's where the wake-up call comes in. This isn't a critical problem for Google, but it shows the benefit we get from having choices on the Web."