So, while going through this whole website restoration process, I discovered that Google’s search engine (funny how you have to be specific about that, now that Google is no longer just a search engine…) seemed to have completely forgotten this site ever existed. If you searched for “Cassidy Curtis” or “how to make a baby” or even “otherthings.com”, you’d find no results whatsoever on this domain. Zero. Considering that a few weeks ago this site was the top search result for all of those phrases, that seemed pretty weird. But I figured it was just because our server had crashed, and it was taking Google’s spiders some time to crawl back over to my little corner of the web.
The truth turns out to be a bit creepier.
I only found out the true nature of the problem by visiting Google’s webmaster tools, where I found an anonymous message dated October 20th, explaining what had happened. The message was sent to nobody, or maybe it was sent to my old email address, the one that died with my old server. At any rate, I never received it. But Google being the ultimate data hoarder, it archived it, and it was waiting for me when I identified myself as the owner of this domain.
Here’s what I learned: Remember a few years ago, when my blog got hacked? Well, the hacker in question used this blog’s machinery (Movable Type, at the time) to plant a nasty little trove of fake web pages advertising all the usual types of internet snake oil, the kind of stuff that usually gets caught in your spam filter. Well, when I switched over to WordPress, I never bothered to delete the old files, I just moved them to a different location, figuring that would break any incoming links and neutralize the problem. (I know, bad idea, right? This is why you should never let me be your sysadmin.) It didn’t work. Somehow, said hacker managed to find the files, and keep using them for their nefarious purposes.
The files were full of sleazy code that did things like: showing one thing to human visitors and an entirely different thing to search engines. Google doesn’t like that. So it reacted, in its anonymous, machine-like way, the only way it knows to respond: it removed otherthings.com entirely from its search engine. Harsh! Luckily, Google lets webmasters appeal that decision once they’ve fixed the problem. They said “it may take several weeks for your site to show up in search again”, but in actuality it only took a day.
Why was this creepy? Because it revealed just how much power this one corporation has over the shape of how we communicate. If you displease Google, it can make you disappear.