In a blog post on the official Google Search blog, Google’s Senior Vice President, Knowledge Alan Eustace today provided some insight into ongoing issues Google Search users in mainland China have been experiencing. As highlighted in the video above, we can see Google observes specific search queries appear to be providing error messages and interrupting the connection. Specifically, users in mainland China over the past couple years have reported frequently experiencing “This webpage is not available” or “The connection was reset” error messages for specific search queries and browsers.
After looking into the issue, Google confirmed the problem doesn’t appear to be originating on its end and has decided to implement notifications to warn users of problem search terms:
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We’ve taken a long, hard look at our systems and have not found any problems. However, after digging into user reports, we’ve noticed that these interruptions are closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries… In order to figure out which keywords are causing problems, a team of engineers in the U.S. reviewed the 350,000 most popular search queries in China. In their research, they looked at multiple signals to identify the disruptive queries, and from there they identified specific terms at the root of the issue.
To help improve the experience for users, Google will begin to roll out notifications (pictured above) that appear when users begin to search for specific queries it has identified as triggers of the error messages.
Although many reports point to censorship as the cause of the error messages, there was not surprisingly no mention of that from Google. Its explanation was that “many of the terms triggering error messages are simple everyday Chinese characters, which can have different meanings in different contexts”:
We’ve observed that many of the terms triggering error messages are simple everyday Chinese characters, which can have different meanings in different contexts. For example a search for the single character [江] (Jiāng, a common surname that also means “river”) causes a problem on its own, but 江 is also part of other common searches like [丽江] (Lijiang, the name of a city in Yunnan Province), [锦江之星] (the Jinjiang Star hotel chain), and [江苏移动] (Jiangsu Mobile, a mobile phone service). Likewise, searching for [周] (Zhōu, another common surname that also means “week”) triggers an error message, so including this character in other searches—like [周杰伦] (Jay Chou, the Taiwanese pop star), [周星驰] (Stephen Chow, a popular comedian from Hong Kong), or any publication that includes the word “week”—would also be problematic.