Reddit URLs are being manipulated to include a slur in the subdomain, and those URLs are coming up in Google Search results.
The Verge experienced the problem on Tuesday, reporting that while doing a Google search, Reddit results that came up had a URL that looked like this: "https://2goback-[slur].reddit.com/r/[the rest of the URL]".
The Verge and the Reddit posts linked above say that the altered URLs redirect users to a Reddit page expected from the rest of the URL, but on Old Reddit (old.reddit.com). Ars Technica viewed links with the slur but was brought to modern Reddit (reddit.com).
In our tests, clicking on the offensive URLs in Google Search results pages redirects you to Reddit's website, with everything before "reddit" stripped from the URL. However, copying and pasting the URL from a Google Search results page and into a web browser brings up a Reddit error page reading, "Something went wrong" and directs users to Reddit's homepage.
The Verge reported that it could also access Reddit by replacing the slur in the modified URLs with any word. Ars Technica confirmed that yesterday upon seeing The Verge's report, but this morning, such altered URLs bring up the aforementioned Reddit error page.
However, there are still many Google search results that include the offending phrase.
A pesky bug
Reddit spokesperson Courtney Geesey-Dorr told The Verge that Reddit "became aware of a bug a week or two ago that allows any words and phrases to be updated and manipulated on a post page hyperlink that leads back to Reddit." The company is trying to fix the problem with its "appropriate partners," she said.
Geesey-Dorr added, "For context, we’ve found that Google will index URLs that work that it finds, both on and off platform, so if someone shared a link on another platform to one of those arbitrary URLs, Google will crawl and index it, even if we don’t 'officially' support it."
Reddit URLs can be manipulated to bring users to specific content. For example, if you were to go to Reddit's homepage and then proceed to the r/Science subreddit, you'd see this URL in your browser: "https://www.reddit.com/r/science/." But you can also access the subreddit by typing "science.reddit.com," which redirects to "https://www.reddit.com/r/science/." It seems that this functionality is being manipulated.
In a statement to Ars Technica, Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt said, "The reason it's surfacing now is because the search engine started indexing those malformed URLs and serving them instead of the correct ones." It will take some time for the obscene URLs to completely leave Google results.
"Reddit has taken steps to prevent the offending pages from appearing prominently on Search, which our systems will begin to recognize over time," Google spokesperson Jennifer Kutz told Ars Technica.
Kutz also shared a link explaining how site owners can get pages temporarily or permanently blocked from Google Search results.
Google won't be pruning the slur-laden results on its own. Kutz said that Google doesn't remove web results from Search except in "limited circumstances" because the company believes "society works best when people have access to information from many sources."
"We design our systems to prioritize the most relevant, reliable, and high quality information possible at the top of Search," Kutz said. "This allows us to focus on developing scalable solutions that improve results for broad swathes of queries as opposed to one-off situations."
In a statement to The Verge, Kutz said the problem was "related to a configuration issue on Reddit that makes it possible to create alternative URLs for Reddit content" and that the company will look into preventing similar problems in the future.
Reddit search trick disrupted
The issue is especially concerning since appending "Reddit" to queries is one of the most helpful tricks to ensure that Google Search results point to helpful, human voices rather than shopping links and websites with fantastic SEO but questionable content. While not everyone searching for Reddit content on Google will see these altered URLs, they are still coming up as legitimate Search results.
Google got a firsthand look at how important Reddit is to Search users this July when API pricing protests on Reddit shut down many subreddits. In turn, the Reddit trick for helpful Search results became virtually useless. Google Search boss Prabhakar Raghavan reportedly acknowledged how this impacted Google Search results at a company-wide meeting, CNBC reported.
“Many of you may wonder how we have a search team that’s iterating and building all this new stuff, and yet somehow, users are still not quite happy,” Raghavan reportedly said.
Advance Publications, which owns Ars Technica parent Condé Nast, is the largest shareholder in Reddit.