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Yesterday at around 16:28 for a portion of the UK, Google's servers and services became unavailable...entirely unavailable.

This meant there was no Google Search, YouTube, Doubleclick, Adsense, Google Analytics, and no Gmail.  What's the impact?

What happens when you can't access Google

It was...disconcerting.

The cause, we don't know, but it was most likely a network outage somewhere and not a problem with Google itself, however I'm based in Cornwall and got tweets from Scotland saying people were experiencing the same problem, so we know it was widespread.

Whether you experienced the blackout or not, what this failure to be able to access Google's services highlighted, was not that we can't survive without Google search or other Google services. In an unanticipated knock-on effect, a failure to be able to access Google's services also stopped lots of other websites working properly.

Failure to be able to access Google takes down other websites with it.

In this real world situation I would never have considered possible before, the business risk from not being able to access Google or its services, was not the lack of their great search engine for finding content -  because even though I prefer using Google, I quite happily rolled over to using Bing which was perfectly good at finding what I needed.

The real business risk which became immediately apparent was the huge amount of Google hosted code embedded in websites across the web for ad-serving, tracking and other services, and the effect not being able to load that code had in making many websites unusable. 

The failure prevented access to Google services for many internet users, and also messed up many websites using JavaScript libraries hosted by Google from services like Doubleclick, Google Analytics and even Google hosted scripts such as jQuery.

Because the Google code would not complete loading, depending on how it had been implemented it also prevented many web pages from properly rendering themselves within the web browser, so they also became unusable. Some of us realised that you could get around this issue by turning off JavaScript in your browser, but that's not ideal, and not something an average web user will think of doing.

Here are some examples:

What can webmasters do about this?

  1. If using Google Analytics you should immediately look at using the asynchronous code which is meant to fail gracefully in a service unavailable situation.
    http://code.google.com/apis/analytics/docs/tracking/asyncTracking.html
  2. Developers - I would also suggest testing your websites to see how they behave when any other externally hosted scripts are blocked -not just Google scripts, ANY scripts from any provider. You can do this easily using modifications to your hosts file to simply map the external paths to 127.0.0.0 thus preventing the files loading in your browser.

Finally. Developers creating scripts to be embedded in other peoples website's: test them thoroughly. Make sure that if they don't work, for any reason and the website hosting them goes down, they fail gracefully and don't stop the websites your scripts are embedded in from working.

In the true ethos of the internet, let's learn a few lessons from this event and make things a bit more scalable and resistant to failure again.

Edward Cowell

Published 16 September, 2010 by Edward Cowell

Teddie Cowell is SEO Director at Guava UK and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

1 more post from this author

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SamCloud

I was affected. Thought it was funny how I couldn't get on the jQuery site as they load their jquery.min.js file from Google!

about 6 years ago

Edward Cowell

Edward Cowell, SEO Director at Guava UK

Samcloud - Very nice example and that is precisely my point. I'd personally naively thought that if there was ever a problem with being to access Google it would mainly be because we couldn't access their search engine and thus we wouldn't be able to find content we wanted online.

But my take away from this unfortunate and hopefully one-off experience, is that - apparently the hidden danger isn't the lack of search, it's from cross site scripting and the fact that most of it wont fail gracefully. Therefore any type of failure at Google, or inability to access Google services due to other third part failures (network level/telecoms etc) brings down a large portion of the web with it...not just Google.

So we'll still be able to find our way to content online via other routes, social media, other search engines etc....but currently a lot of it just wont work.

I think this is very serious wake up call to web developers about how they build websites and web applications, and business owners in terms of how they assess their risk portfolio.

about 6 years ago

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Bertie Stevenson

Marketers who are happy to use 'free' services with no SLA or come back if things break should look hard at whether that is worth the risk. If it breaks your sites and loses you cash with no come back, perhaps you would be better off and more protected with a enterprise solution with services and SLAs contractually obliged to you. Free lunch anyone?

about 6 years ago

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William

The effects described are of a technical and financial (ad revenues) nature. Very interesting ofcourse...

But the fact that there's so much hubbub around this, and if I read between the lines of your post, there's a another major effect: a psychological one.

People that have taken a certain aspect of their lives suddenly taken away, will probably feel an increased level of stress or anxiety. So, same applies for Google? Google has become a basic need in our needs hierarchy perhaps...

about 6 years ago

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Franck

Will it be to difficult to use Yahoo!, Bing or Ask instead ?

about 6 years ago

Edward Cowell

Edward Cowell, SEO Director at Guava UK

William you may be right about the psychological impact from not being able to access Google because it is so much part of our lives and a brand we all/mostly love.

But for me personally the real psychological impact came from realising that most of the other websites I tried to access wouldn't work, now that really bothered me, because effectively the web itself stopped working.

about 6 years ago

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Rene

Had no idea. Was probably working. What it does show is an over-reliance on Google. I use loads to be honest but I had no idea that business was so reliant too. Companies should have a plan b for over-reliance. You wouldn't run a business with only one client so why run your business, site etc through one supplier. Seems madness.

about 6 years ago

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Rick Vidallon

I was on a US Navy Submarine as a guest for 2 days. (There is no connectivity cruising 600ft below the waves from Florida to Norfolk.) It was kinda nice being unplugged. I read Liana Evans, Social Media Marketing while under way. That was as close as I got to the Web!

about 6 years ago

Adam Hart

Adam Hart, Flash & Motion Designer at The Engine Group

Where's 'Cormwall'? I'd love to know where this mystery county resides!

about 6 years ago

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Phil

Adam, Try Googling Cornwall; if Google's up you should find it quite easily, there's no mystery.

about 6 years ago

Adam Hart

Adam Hart, Flash & Motion Designer at The Engine Group

Indeed it does, though 'Cormwall' doesn't... I was simply highlighting your minor spelling error.

about 6 years ago

Adam Hart

Adam Hart, Flash & Motion Designer at The Engine Group

...That has now consequently been corrected :P

about 6 years ago

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