Saturday, 22 February 2014

Everything’s Not Awesome: Google News Spammed With Pitch To Watch “The Lego Movie” For Free

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It’s definitely not what you expect to make the top of a Google News section, a crappy article promising that you can watch The Lego Movie online for free, not when the film is still in theaters. But that’s what Google is delivering up.
The screenshot above shows the situation, which reader Vishvesh Agrawal of DhanInfo tipped us to, after coming across it when reading Google News. The “story” appearing at the top of the Google News entertainment section is all types of bad.

Supposed News From The Call & Post

Let’s look at a close-up:
Supposedly, this is a story from the Call & Post, a newspaper out of Cleveland, Ohio. But the Call & Post has no stories at all about The Lego Movie when you use the newspaper’s own search tool:

Whatever You Don’t, Don’t Click For More

Nor does clicking on the supposed story in Google take you to the Call & Post. Instead, you’re redirected to here:
That’s a page within a free website hosting service called that promises you can watch The Lego Movie — which is still in theaters and not available online anywhere in the US legally — for free after taking a survey.
Selecting a survey link takes you to places like this:
Or here, where you get a scary pop-up that tries to get you to install software:
I didn’t try any of these offers to see what would happen after completing them. Perhaps I might have actually been allowed to watch the film, in the end, which almost certainly would have been a pirated copy. More likely, nothing would have happened at all.

A Hack At The Publication?

How this is happening is unclear. The page that’s ranking tops seems to be one of several full video movie pages that Google believes actually are on the Call & Post site:
The stories do appear to have resided on the Call & Post site at one time, because Google’s cached copy shows them complete with author names, such as here:
However, trying to reach any of the pages generates redirections on the Call & Post’s server that point (via the shortening service) to Chances are, someone has gained access to the Call & Post’s server, both to plant the stories and establish the redirections, perhaps through a hack.

Hack Extends To Google News

Servers get hacked all the time by people trying to hijack existing top rankings in Google and send traffic elsewhere. But it’s extremely odd for a hack like this to hit Google News.
The Google News ranking system is supposed to reward sites that have authority and expertise in particular subjects. This site has no such demonstrable expertise in movie reviews — it doesn’t regularly do them at all. And yet, this apparently hacked page got rewarded with top billing by Google News. It’s a terrible relevancy failure.
It’s also not going to help with Google’s relations with Hollywood, which feels Google doesn’t do enough to stop people from locating pirated content.
We’re checking with both the Call & Post and Google about the situation. But no doubt, it’ll end fairly soon after this story goes up.
As for The Lego Movie, I thought it was excellent. So go see it in a theater. Here’s a trailer for it:

Postscript (4:50am): Originally, the headline was “Everything’s Not Awesome: Google News Spammed With Pitch To Watch ‘The Lego Movie’ For Free,” which I thought was fair enough to say. While the Google News server wasn’t hacked into, as in a security issue, the algorithm was effectively hacked for this page to show up. But after the comment from Alex below, I reconsidered and went with “spammed” as a more accurate term.
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