Was the drop in UAL shares engineered?

A bit of lunchtime discussion about the whole United Airlines fake bankruptcy mess brought about an interesting theory. The reason the story from 2002 was picked up in the first place was because the headline was in the “Most Viewed” stories tab which is calculated automatically, most likely by looking at pageviews.

So the obvious question is, what is a story from 2002 doing in the Most Viewed box? Pageviews can be easily gamed using a bot to hit a page and bump up the count. Today, The Wall Street Jounal reports that according to the Sun-Sentinel, “a single visit during a low-traffic period early Sunday morning pushed the undated story onto the list of most popular business news of its South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper’s Web site.”

Details of what the Sun-Sentinel servers saw are in a press release put out by the Tribune company. Further reading of the release includes this tidbit:

Importantly, the URL for the old story did not change when the link appeared on the website’s business section. . . Our records also show that the Google search agent had previously crawled this same story numerous times, including as recently as last week.

The implication is that Google’s crawlers should have known better that this was an old URL and that it should not have made it into Google News. To Google’s defense, I’m sure they crawl many front pages of newspaper sites where the URL never changes so any such URL-dating would have to be done selectively.

The latest news is that the SEC is now involved to see if there was, “any improper behavior” and I’m sure they are going to follow the money and see if there was anyone that profited from short-selling of UAL. Either way, the finger pointing begins and it’s going to get ugly. UAL stock closed today at $11.09, still about a dollar short of when this whole thing started on Monday.

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