Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Storm in the Cloud: Is Google Run By Brain-Dead Robots?

Cloud computing is hot these days, and for most of us The Cloud means Google.

We use Gmail to send and receive messages, GDocs to create or exchange documents, and Google Reader to track our favorite Web sites. Those on the Web check their traffic with Google Analytics and monetize their sites with Google's AdSense. Some of us even use Google’s Blogger to create and host our sites.

All of these services are free – except that they can be very expensive. I found out the hard way:

Seven days ago, without warning or notification, Blogger (AKA Blogspot) disabled my blog. Visitors got a screen saying simply, “The blog you were looking for was not found” without any indication that the blog had ever existed.

My Blogger account had this message: “Blogger's spam-prevention robots have detected that your blog has characteristics of a spam blog. Since you're an actual person reading this, your blog is probably not a spam blog. Automated spam detection is inherently fuzzy, and we sincerely apologize for this false positive.”

I suspect a few recent spammy comments caused the problem, but I wasn’t even able to go into my account to delete those. I went through Google’s process of requesting a review and an appeal but got no response from the Googlopoly except this, “We received your unlock request on December 2, 2009. On behalf of the robots, we apologize for locking your non-spam blog. Please be patient while we take a look at your blog and verify that it is not spam.”

(Brilliant idea: If you've got a customer-service problem, blame it on the robots!)

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Several prominent postal-news Web sites had linked to my Dec. 1 article about the Flats Sequencing System, bringing thousands of visitors. Dead Tree Edition’s coverage of the black-liquor controversy had recently received praise from the Vancouver Sun’s Gordon Hamilton -- who as far as I can tell is the only reporter covering the North American forest products industry full time. A guest columnist had drafted the best article I have ever seen about paper buying. And a magazine that was planning to publish an article I wrote -- with links to Dead Tree Edition for more information -– got cold feet because of the outage.

I posted several messages on Google help forums that got no response except a rather surly one and a fellow blogger agreeing that the site obviously wasn’t spam. Finally, after 5 ½ days, I put in a query that caught the attention of an actual human being -- or maybe a robot that was programmed to mimic the customer-service skills of a Division of Motor Vehicles clerk: “OK, I've put this in Gatsby's queue. Possible resolution tomorrow, if you are not a turkey.”

He (She? It?) then suggested I read his post characterizing Blogger users as hyenas, coyotes, and turkeys – none of them having flattering descriptions. More than 24 hours later, this person or robot notified me that Dead Tree Edition was alive again.

When I started this blog a little more than a year ago, I decided to keep things simple because I didn't know my RSS from a hole in the ground. I chose Blogger assuming it would work well with other Google products and Google search. I also figured the money Google made from AdSense ads would give it an incentive to provide reasonable service even though I pay nothing for Blogger itself.

Two problems:
1) Google is brilliant in some areas but arrogantly incompetent in others. Several competitors have leapfrogged over its neglected Blogger product. And I’m glad I’m not into IM because Gmail’s “Chat” feature seems to be down at least half the time.
2) Google’s products don’t talk to each other well. While the blog was disabled, AdSense and Analytics continued recording visits and clicks at the cached version of Dead Tree Edition. But their bots apparently never said to the Blogger bots, “Hey, traffic and revenue suddenly dropped by more than 99 percent. What the hell is going on?”

So now what? I've already changed the settings so that I have to approve any comment before it is posted. I have learned so much from comments, so I hope that doesn't stifle participation.

I’m still studying the advice and feedback that came in during the past week from various webmasters and editors, which are worth sharing:
  •  “You should look at hosting the blog yourself or use something like Wordpress.com or Typepad. BlogSpot is too much BS.” (This being a very part-time venture, I don't relish the thought of moving everything to a different site and changing software.)
  •  “Do not resist. You will be assimilated."
  •  “For what it's worth, I use Blogger.com to produce [a website], but I don't use Blogspot to host it."
  •  “If you have copies of your articles that you can post elsewhere (posterous.com is a good option), let me know and I'll pass the word.” (Posterous is an interesting service, but I don’t see a business model for posting my stuff there – not that I have much of a business model now.)
  •  Two sites offered to host the blog, but the business model there is a bit murky because not all of the content is suited to either site. Maybe I could cut Dead Tree Edition up and pass the parts around to different Web sites – one for postal stuff, another for paper articles, a third for environmental reporting, etc. Not sure if any legitimate site would want the infamous “cardboard porn” series or other humor items.
  •  “Google, as you know, practically owns the Internet -- or at least they think they do. I don't know how you got in touch with them for an explanation...they try very hard not to give you anything but 'see our forums.'”
  •  “I would strongly advise purchasing web hosting to have better control.”
  •  “Get off Blogger.”
  •  “I sometimes will run across such a problem with my websites, and because everything is automated, it's hard if not impossible to speak to an actual person.”
  •  “I hate Google.”
  • "I hope the outage is 'only a flesh wound' and that you are 'not dead yet'," wrote a fellow Monty Python fan.
So what do you think? Feel free to leave your comment here -- if you don't mind waiting for me to approve it before it's published -- or write me at dead.tree.edition@gmail.com.

6 comments:

Rick Owens said...

So glad to see that you (your site actually) have been resurrected. I know fully well how it feels when it seems you are at the mercy of a large web host...no matter what form they're in.

I do agree that your content deserves its own website without being held captive to Google. You should give this considerable thought.


Goog luck!

Anonymous said...

Well thank goodness! I've been suffering from Dead Tree Edition withdrawals. NEVER leave me like that again!

Jeannette Paladino said...

Definitely switch to WordPress and a reliable host like Hostgator. You should be able to find someone to help you move your blog over without having a catastrophe.

Anonymous said...

If Google is The Cloud, I'm not sure that leaving Blogger would render you Google-free. You'd still have to worry about search engine optimization and a robot that can decide to de-index your publication by wrongly determining you run a potentially harmful website.

OG

Patrick said...

I see you 'got better'!

You survived the Robots that said Nii!

What has google done for us anyway?
There is the search engine!
OK beside the search engine what have the done for us?...

Patrick said...

The Google Robot Liberation Front!

Or were they the Robot Liberation Front of Google!