Google has run a sting operation that it says proves Bing has been watching what people search for on Google, the sites they select from Google’s results, and then uses that information to improve Bing’s own search listings.
Bing doesn’t deny Google’s claim. Indeed, the statement that Stefan Weitz, director of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, emailed Danny Sullivan yesterday as he worked on this article seems to confirm the allegation:
Here’s the thing: This is an embarrassment for Microsoft, but it’s actually pretty smart. Yes, it’s just the latest case of “oh, man, Microsoft can’t come up with anything on its own, can it?”
As you might imagine, we use multiple signals and approaches when we think about ranking, but like the rest of the players in this industry, we’re not going to go deep and detailed in how we do it. Clearly, the overarching goal is to do a better job determining the intent of the search, so we can guess at the best and most relevant answer to a given query.
Opt-in programs like the [Bing] toolbar help us with click stream data, one of many input signals we and other search engines use to help rank sites. This “Google experiment” seems like a hack to confuse and manipulate some of these signals.
For the purpose of the operation, Google created some esoteric searches which it rigged to display specific pages in the search results in its own search engine. Then it told 20 of its engineers to go home and run the searches on their laptops using Internet Explorer with the “Suggested Sites” and Bing toolbar enabled. After two weeks or so, Google discovered the searches were producing the same results on Bing.
Google, the dominant search engine, said Microsoft is using Internet Explorer 8 features to track what Google users are searching for, then copying those search results on its own search engine.
On a company blog, Google said it wants Microsoft to stop the practice.
Microsoft acknowledged it uses IE8 and a Bing toolbar to track user information but said it’s just one factor in determining Bing search results. Harry Shum, a corporate vice president for search at Microsoft, referred to Google’s sting as a “spy-novelesque stunt.”
The allegations were first reported Tuesday by the site searchengineland.com. Later, Shum and Google principal engineer Matt Cutts argued over them on stage Tuesday at the Farsight 2011 conference in San Francisco. Their appearance, for a scheduled discussion on the future of search, was webcast.
“It’s almost like a mapmaker that inserts a fake street and sees if that street gets copied or if a Yellow Pages inserts a fake number,” Cutts said.
Shum did not deny that the Bing toolbar or IE8 features track data, adding that all search operations track customer behavior.
“We learn from our customers,” Shum said.
“We have been very clear we use customer data. My understanding is other search engines also use a similar thing.”
Cutts countered, “I’m not sure users realize that by installing the Bing bar or installing suggested sites on IE8 that those results are encrypted and sent to Microsoft.”
Shum then criticized Google about online spam, saying, “I think Google, as an industry leader, would be responsible for a lot of spam we receive.”
Google has been hit with privacy complaints that it tracks what people search for. By saying Microsoft is using its browser tools to track users; Google appeared to be trying to paint Microsoft and Bing with the same brush.
Microsoft also posted a blog item, from Shum that said: “To be clear, we learn from all of our customers. What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a backhanded 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.”