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.