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Google offers tips to help Chinese steer clear of the Great Firewall

After analyzing thousands of search terms, Google has determined the ones most likely to run afoul of China's maddeningly inconsistent Great Firewall. Now it will alert users when they're in danger of having their Internet connection disrupted by censors.

Google will now offer Chinese users alternatives for search terms that it has determined are likely to result in disconnection. Screenshot by CNET

Chinese Internet users have long grappled with frequent disconnections and service interruptions, thanks to China's Great Firewall -- often immediately after doing a Google query. Today, the search giant has come up with some workarounds that could help users avoid that electric fence.

"Over the past couple years, we've had a lot of feedback that Google Search from mainland China can be inconsistent and unreliable," Google wrote in a blog post today. "It depends on the search query and browser, but users are regularly getting error messages like 'This webpage is not available' or 'The connection was reset.' And when that happens, people typically cannot use Google again for a minute or more."

Now, Google said it has determined that its own systems are not the cause of the problem. At the same time, it said it analyzed 350,000 popular keywords and discovered some that are prone to cause problems (see video below). And in a bid to help Chinese users avoid the temporary disconnections, the company said it will begin offering warnings when a query is likely to cause a problem, as well as suggestions of alternate search terms that are less likely to do so.

"Starting today we'll notify users in mainland China when they enter a keyword that may cause connection issues," Google wrote. "By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China. Of course, if users want to press ahead with their original queries they can carry on."

Interestingly, in a country whose government is well known for censoring certain use of the Internet, it seems that the keywords that result in service disruption can sometimes be altogether random. And that can be quite frustrating to users simply trying to get through a normal workday.

In his post "Google and the Great Firewall: An Interesting New Twist," Atlantic writer James Fallows offers his own take on the Google news.

First, Fallows explained how Chinese users access Google in the wake of the company's confrontation with the Chinese government two years ago: "Google moved its Chinese search servers outside the mainland, to Hong Kong. People in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere on the mainland can still use Google, but their queries must pass through 'Great Firewall' filters on their way out to Hong Kong and then back in again."

Added Fallows, "The brilliance of the multi-layered screening systems that together make up the Firewall is that they are neither airtight nor fully predictable. Unless you are brazenly searching for some obviously taboo term, you're never certain what exactly has triggered a blockage -- or, often, whether your query is being blocked at all, versus your having run into some routine internet problem."

And this is where Google is trying to offer some help.

"We've observed that many of the terms triggering error messages are simple everyday Chinese characters, which can have different meanings in different contexts," Google wrote in its blog post. As a result, its search engine for China will now highlight potential problem terms as users type, and then offer a drop-down menu with an "interruption" link, "which takes them to [a] help center article. They can continue with their original query (which will likely lead to an error message), or click 'Edit search terms,' which will remove the highlighted characters and prompt users to try other search terms....In order to avoid connection problems, users can refine their searches without the problem keywords."

For Fallows, Google's new approach to this problem is "worth study on the ongoing rich question of China's conflicted embrace of the Internet."

As well, Fallows notes one of his reader's reactions to Google's move: "I like it; it's not only helpful, but serves as a constant, in-your-face reminder to users in China that the government is censoring search results to such an extent that even seemingly innocuous words can get one's connection interrupted. In other words; it's a passive aggressive way for Google to point out just how insecure the Chinese government is."