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Blame game over United Airlines stock crash rumbles on

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The spat over who is to blame over the United Airlines share price crash continues.

It's common ground that a six-year-old United Airlines bankruptcy story became one of the most popular business stories on the Florida Sun Sentinel website early on Sunday morning, during a quiet news period, and was indexed by Google News. A Florida investment firm (who obviously hadn't looked at the content of the story) wrote a one line summary that made its way onto Bloomberg business wire on Monday, triggering a sell off that saw UAL shares drop from $12 to $3 before trading was suspended.

Both the Tribune Group, which owns the Sun Sentinel, and Google have issued statements (here and here) explaining their versions of events. The Sun Sentinel story wasn't dated (although its content made it obvious the piece was old) so the issue hinges on whether the url for the story changed or not.

The Tribune maintained that the url of the story didn’t change whereas Google said it hadn't crawled the link before.

An analysis by UK-based online marketing blog Blogstorm sides with Google in suggesting that the url had changed, several times over the years, whether Tribune bosses realised it or not. Crucially, the link in the "most popular" section of the Sun Sentinel site on Sunday morning was also new, Blogstorm explains.

The link posted to the "Popular Stories" section was to this article (now removed) which had a different url to all the other stories indexed by Google, so Google thought it was a brand new article. In Google's world, if something has a brand new url, then it’s a brand new page. Perhaps the url has existed for 6 years without being found by Google - if Google has indexed the story at a number of very similar urls, then they may well have decided not to crawl the extra url. When this suddenly gets linked from thousands of other pages on the site Google probably thought it was important enough to crawl and index.

So it might follow that the whole sorry mess can be blamed on the Tribune. Other factors - even ignoring the role of the the Florida investment house, Bloomberg and lemming-like investors - also come into play.

The mystery of why the six-year-old story appeared in the most popular stories section of the Sun Sentinel site is becoming clearer. The buzz in the blogsphere is that links from sites such as Digg and StumbleUpon to the now infamous story might have done the trick. Security experts warned that a botnet could easily be tuned to drive the necessary traffic.

But the Wall Street Journal reports that just one hit was all that was needed.

Last year, Tribune boss Sam Zell told Google and other news aggregators to stop indexing its headlines unless it was prepared to strike a licensing deal and pay up. But, as ValleyWag notes, the Sun-Sentinel failed to change the robots.txt file on its site in order to give the Googlebot a polite brush off, so its unsurprising that the automated process of headline grabbing was still taking place.

"If my analysis is correct and the Tribune did publish the story at multiple urls and the stories didn’t have the correct date stamp then my belief is they have been negligent. In the era of social media where 100,000 people can be directed to an article within hours publishing without a valid time and date at the top of the article is highly irresponsible," writes Patrick Altoft, managing partner at Blogstorm.

"The fact that the CMS has been designed without considering the potential implications of multiple urls and how Google News might handle them is also highly irresponsible for a major media organisation. Unless news sites realise the importance of these issues, we will see this type of incident happen again and again," he adds. ®

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