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Google to Microsoft: You're stealing our search results!

Redmond farce trapped by Google 'sting'

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Google has accused Microsoft of copying its search results, after running a "sting operation" that indicates Redmond's Internet Explorer software is tracking what searchers find on Google and using this data to tweak results on Bing.

Microsoft indicates this is indeed happening – but on a small scale.

Google first made the accusation in a story it fed to Search Engine Land, and it's rather peeved about the situation. “I’ve spent my career in pursuit of a good search engine,” Google Fellow Amit Singhal told Search Engine Land. “I’ve got no problem with a competitor developing an innovative algorithm. But copying is not innovation, in my book.”

In a statement sent to The Register, however, Singhal – who oversees Google's search algorithm – was a bit more measured. "At Google, we strongly believe in innovation and are proud of our search quality," he said. "We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there, from Bing and others – algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results copied from a competitor."

There's some irony at play here. Android, you might argue, was fashioned after a certain Apple handset, and Google's multibillion-dollar ad business is built atop copied content. This is the company that spent years copying entire book libraries without the approval of authors and publishers. But there's an equally enjoyable irony on Microsoft's side. And even if there weren't, the very idea of Microsoft directly pilfering Google's search results is wonderfully amusing.

When we asked Microsoft about Google's claims, it didn't deny them. And it seemed to imply that the Bing toolbar – an optional browser install – was directly tweaking Bing results in the way Google describes. "We use multiple signals and approaches in ranking search results," said Bing director Stefan Weitz. "The overarching goal is to do a better job determining the intent of the search so we can provide the most relevant answer to a given query. Opt-in programs like the toolbar help us with clickstream data, one of many input signals we and other search engines use to help rank sites."

In a blog post, Microsoft Bing vice president Harry Shum said much the same thing. Then he made light of Google's "sting".

"What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking," he said. "It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience."

According to Search Engine Land, Google first suspected that Microsoft was copying its results last May when it noticed that Bing was becoming particularly adept at returning results when users misspelled their queries. Then in October, Mountain View data indicated that across Bing, Microsoft's first page of results was looking much more like Google's page, and that the two search engines were much more likely to return the same top result.

Guessing that Internet Explorer was somehow lifting Google data from users and sending it back to Bing, Mountain View launched its "sting operation". The company set up 100 faux search results pages for queries that most users were unlikely to try. Initially, these results were completely different from Microsoft's results for the same queries.

Mountain View engineers then ran these queries on Google's search engine using Internet Explorer, with Microsoft's Suggested Sites tool and the Bing Toolbar turned on, and they were instructed to always click on the top result. The test began in mid-December, and by the end of the month, Microsoft's results for those same queries had changed – at least a little. Changes appeared on less than 10 of Google's 100 manual queries.

The privacy policies for Internet Explorer, the Suggested Sites, and the Bing toolbar clearly state that Microsoft may collect your search and browsing data. But this is hardly unusual. Chrome and Google toolbar collect similar data. The Google toolbar, for instance, collects urls used to calculate Mountain View's famous PageRank.

Speaking with Search Engine Land, Singhal makes a point of saying that Microsoft is doing something Google would never do. "The PageRank feature [on the Google toolbar] sends back URLs, but we’ve never used those URLs or data to put any results on Google’s results page," he said. "We do not do that, and we will not do that".

But Singhal is merely saying that Google would never use those URLs to directly adjust search results. Obviously, those URLs are used for other things, including, well, PageRank, which is an integral part of Google's search results. Singhal's search sensibilities have been offended, but both Microsoft and Google are tracking the users, just in slightly different ways.

Nonetheless, Microsoft is pilfering Google's search results – at least in a small way. And it's doubly amusing that all this has come to light after Microsoft publicly complained that Chrome was "stealing your privacy" as it gathered data via its built-in address bar. This is the ultimate irony. But there's more than enough to go around. ®

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