A Great Firewall? Google Now Warns Chinese Users When Search Terms Could Cause “Connection Issues”

Those who don’t live or haven’t recently traveled to China may not have experienced this first hand, but Google Search has been known to be “inconsistent and unreliable” in mainland China — to use Google’s words. Error messages like “This webpage is not available” or “The connection was reset” are common and those errant queries then prevent users from searching again for a period of time. In a blog post today, Google’s search team said that, after “taking a hard look” at its own systems, the problem isn’t emanating from Google’s end, and is instead “closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries.” As a result, Google search will now be notifying Chinese users when their search terms are likely to cause these interruptions.

Google’s language seems to make it clear that these breaks are outside of their control, of course, it’s less clear why they’re taking place. It seems as if Google is going out of its way not to point the finger at the “Great Firewall,” but the reasons could certainly be political.

We reached out to Google to see if they could or would say more, to which they responded:

We’re not able to do an in-depth examination of technology beyond our own systems. We looked at our own systems and found no technical problems. Our hope is simply to improve the search experience for people in mainland China.

In any case, in prompting users to revise their queries, Google is obviously taking what steps it can to reduce disruptions experienced by users of its Chinese search engines. So, a team of search engineers has been reviewing the most popular Chinese search queries to identify specific terms that are causing problems.

Now when users type in a term, the search engine will highlight the problematic term and a dropdown menu appears below the search box at which point they can continue their search anyway, choose to edit the search, or redirect to this help center article.

Here’s Google’s explanation of the type of terms that are at the root of the problem:

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.

Google is obviously being diplomatic in its description of the issue, but it’s important to frame this in the context of the company’s somewhat embattled history with China. Two years ago, Google moved its servers off the mainland of China to Hong Kong, meaning that users would still be able to use Google search from the mainland, but all queries would pass through the Great Firewall on the way to its Hong Kong servers.

For a long time, China has struggled with its approach to how it will embrace the Web, which has in turn come with a lot of government intervention and censoring, often to the chagrin of its citizens and to those abroad. But what’s interesting, whether Google would say it or not, is that its new search notification has the potential to act as an ever-present reminder that the Chinese government is censoring search results. And, in intervening by way of its firewall, happens to be screening words that are as inoffensive and everyday as “river” — as seen in Google’s description above.

It should be fascinating to see if this new system proves helpful for Chinese searchers. For more, check out the video below, in which Google offers a fascinating firsthand look at what it’s like to use Google in China — behind The Great Firewall.