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Google’s clever choice of words during the Gmail incident (why 0.02% matters)

GoogleSite issues come in all shapes and forms, and no one seems immune. Google’s Gmail problems the last couple of days, where a number of Gmail users temporarily lost all of their emails, was proof that Murphy’s Law is alive and well on the Internet.

However, this post is not really about that specific incident, but rather about an interesting detail in the way Google communicated the problem.

Oops, but only 0.02% are affected

In their official account of the incident, Google was very careful to point out (twice) that only 0.02% of all Gmail users were affected. No mention of how many users that corresponded to.

[…] Imagine the sinking feeling of logging in to your Gmail account and finding it empty. That’s what happened to 0.02% of Gmail users yesterday, and we’re very sorry. […]

In fact, during the entire conversation about the incident, Google consistently used percentages, never once mentioning in absolute numbers how many Gmail users were affected (at least we didn’t see any).

So the focus in Google’s communication was to point out that tiny little fragment of a percent. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

A matter of scale

To realize why this was a clever move, you first need to know how big Gmail is: Gmail supposedly has around 200 million users. It’s a huge email service.

A thin slice from a huge pie will still be significant, and even a mere 0.02% turns out to be a large chunk. In this case, it corresponds to 40,000 users.

40,000 affected users sounds a lot worse than 0.02%, doesn’t it? The latter gives a much more positive spin. “We’re having trouble, but only a tiny share of our users are affected.”

Which is of course why Google didn’t mention any absolute numbers. This was a company in damage control mode.

It’s actually a pretty smart (but not very transparent) approach for any big service, because even tiny shares of a huge user base will number in the thousands. Even “small” incidents will look bad if actual user numbers are discussed.

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