When Heavy Web Traffic Hurts: MJ Mourning Crashes Google

A flurry of Web surfing for news about Michael Jackson's untimely death flattened Google News June 25. The search engine and Web services provider refused to serve searchers Web pages for nearly a half hour. Facebook, Twitter and other Websites also experienced a burst in traffic, the second spike in as many weeks thanks to the Iranian election furor.

Crashes on the Web are common, but you don't often hear of crashes on Google's Web search engine, which reportedly has the infrastructure muscle of some 1 million servers worldwide powering searches for 65 percent of the world's Internet users.

Yet that's exactly what happened June 25 afternoon when news of Michael Jackson's death seized the Web and millions of users flooded Google, Facebook, Twitter and other popular Web services. Like a tidal wave rolling across a vast ocean, millions of users surfed Google for news and updates about the pop icon's passing.

The spike in Web surfing crushed Google so hard that Google News mistook the fervent interest for an automated attack and stopped serving some Web pages. For a good 25 minutes Thursday, some people searching Google News were greeted by a "We're sorry" page before finding the articles they were looking for. The "we're sorry" was a kind of plea for help from Google's servers, which were blitzed by the action.

Google Search Director of Product Management R.J. Pittman explained:

"Search volume began to increase around 2:00 pm, skyrocketed by 3:00 pm, and stabilized by about 8:00 pm. As you can see in Google Hot Trends, many of the fastest rising search queries from yesterday and today have been about Michael Jackson's passing (others pertained to the death of another cultural icon, Farrah Fawcett)."

Pittman also noted that Web users also used their cell phones to check on breaking news. Google was the beneficiary; five of the top 20 mobile searches were for Jackson.

A Google spokesperson later told Search Engine Land's Matt McGee the traffic crush was an "all-hands-on-deck" moment for the company, whose support engineers had to work to get Google News back online.

Michael Jackson's premature death of a heart attack at the age of 50 also caused record traffic spikes at social networks Facebook and Twitter and the Los Angeles Times' Website. Jackson's death (along with those of Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon) caused the second major Internet traffic spike in as many weeks.

Millions of people June 15 took to tweeting on Twitter about the Iranian presidential election, which many citizens felt the Iranian government rigged in favor of winner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The State Department took the unusual step of beseeching Twitter not to pull the plug June 15 to do an important network upgrade. Twitter complied and conducted the upgrade the following day.

While such crashes may reflect poorly on the companies, they can also be blessings in disguise, forcing Web service providers to plug their technological holes, bolstering their hardware and software infrastructure against future traffic gluts. In Google's case, perhaps the company's engineers could better train its software to distinguish between an automated attack and a massive outpouring of human interest.