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Google Stumbles?


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By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, October 12, 2003; Page F07

Is Google starting to show signs of strain against spammers and Web scammers?

Chatters at the geek news site Slashdot observed this week that using the search engine to track down certain oddball series of words, such as "speaker bracelet" or "candle truck," turned up strangely low results. Instead of finding only the expected handful of sites, Google reported that none could be found.

Cambridge, Mass., computer programmer Seth Finkelstein, an expert on Internet filters, thinks he's figured out the reason.

"The Google search results are crashing, presumably as a result of a bug in the spam-filtering measures," Finkelstein said Friday. Web scammers spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make their sites appear at the top of Google search results, using fake sites and links to boost their apparent popularity -- Google's central measure of a site's importance. The tech folks at Google, in turn, try to make sure their site spits out only valid results.

Finkelstein's theory on the problem, posted on his Web site (, includes a link to the Web site of one apparent scammer. Strangely enough, the site consists of nothing but a long list of seemingly random terms ("rugs," "home mortgage loan," "1966 chevrolet corvette") linked to more sites with more words.

Somewhere in that tangled web is a "real" site or sites that someone is trying to promote by linking to it from hundreds of such dummy sites. Because of a bug in Google's software, Finkelstein said, Google's search engine essentially crashes when it hits certain combinations of words.

Google spokesman Nathan Tyler acknowledged this week that the company has found a bug that it is working on, but he declined to elaborate.

So, who the heck was searching for "speaker bracelets" or "candle trucks" anyway? The problem was evidently discovered by "GoogleWhackers" -- fans who use the site to look for word combinations that can be found only once in Google's index of the Web ( Recent GoogleWhack discoveries include "fetishized armadillo" and "panfish interrogation" -- phrases that now, thanks to this article, have probably lost that coveted uniqueness.

Music Services Change Their Tune

Roxio, the CD-burning-software developer that owns the Napster name, announced a few details about its planned music service. "Napster 2.0" is scheduled to go live Oct. 29.

This service will offer both subscription and per-song plans (99 cents a song or $9.95 per album) and is starting with a library of 500,000 tracks in Windows Media format. Roxio also announced that users who preregister for the service can get five free tracks.

Meanwhile, EMusic, which gives subscribers unlimited MP3 downloads from minor- and independent-label artists, alerted users this week that, after its acquisition by an investors group called Dimensional Associates LLC, it will end its all-you-can-hear offerings. Instead, two new subscription plans will go into effect starting Nov. 8: $9.99 per month for 40 downloads or $14.99 per month for 65.

Finally, Apple sent out invitations to journalists on Thursday for a "special event" next Thursday in San Francisco. The invite bears the highly unsubtle headline "The year's biggest music story is about to get even bigger." The conclusion of just about every Apple watcher: The company will introduce the Windows-compatible version of its iTunes Music Store.

-- Mike Musgrove

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