Google Webmaster tools glitch hits SMEs as expert calls for vigilance

Small businesses have been urged to keep a closer eye on their Google Webmaster accounts after a glitch yesterday allowed users to access the details of other websites – potentially allowing malicious users to wreak havoc on another firm’s online presence.

And while Google now says the vulnerability has been patched up, experts say it could have caused sites a significant amount of lost traffic.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” says StewArt Media chief executive Jim Stewart. “The lesson in all of this is to keep an eye on your Webmaster tools, and just always make sure of what’s going on there.”

Search engine optimisation companies which have been hired to work for a website gain access using Google’s Webmaster tools client. But over time, while clients come and go and access to those sites is revoked, they still show up in the Webmaster tools client. They only difference is that the SEO company isn’t able to access any of the data – it shows up with a “not verified” message.

What happened yesterday was that many websites that were previously “unverified” switched over to “verified”.

Jim Stewart says he had access to old clients’ data, including a major online retailer, and was able to click on through to their Webmaster profiles. While Stewart says he’s heard no reports of foul play, any company that had hired a “vengeful” SEO company in the past could have seen some major damage done.

And it seems the glitch is widespread. TheNextWeb has spoken to a former SEO manager of eBay who said he gained access to the online auction house’s account – 15 months after he stopped working for the site.

Some of that damage could include preventing a home page from being indexed on Google search results, or even eliminating sitemaps.

In a statement, Google has said that the accounts affected have been reverted, and the company is investigating ways to stop it from happening again.

Stewart says while everything seems to be under control, it’s yet another reason why businesses always need to keep an eye on what their Webmaster account is doing – and always keep in touch with their SEO managers, whether outsourced or in-house.

“Make sure someone in your organisation always has an email address that’s valid and connected to Webmaster tools – it’s extremely important to keep an eye on it at all times.”

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