Google Accuses Microsoft’s Bing of Cheating

by Matt Klassen on February 2, 2011

It’s a prudent business practice to know what your closest competitors are doing, to watch the products they’re developing, and see what innovations they are bringing to market, all in an effort to keep one step ahead of them. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to hear that Google keeps close tabs on its rival search engines, analyzing its competitor’s performance as part of a constant effort to make Google the best search engine choice available.

But it was during some routine diagnostic and analysis work that Google employees noticed something change, Microsoft’s rival search engine Bing appeared to be acting as a copycat of sorts, suspiciously mirroring Google’s own search results.

It was then that Google’s employees started to wonder if Microsoft’s Bing was cheating, copying its search results from Google’s search engine and representing them and its own. But how to prove that Bing was cheating? For that Google turned to a little 80’s gumshoe detective work…it setup a sting to catch Bing in the act.

While the timeline of this whole debacle remains fuzzy, it apparently began several months ago when Google’s crack team of wordsmiths were feverishly correcting the myriad of typographical errors that often appear in search terms. As part of this corrective process, Google routinely monitors the performance of its competitors as well, which is where they first discovered Bing’s anomalous behaviour.

You see, when those corrected search terms were subsequently used in a search or query they would generate a new set of findings based on the correction. Soon after, however, Google staff began noticing that Bing would offer the new corrected search results as well, even though there was no indication that Bing had corrected the same typos.

Confused? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. But seeing the same corrected search results mirrored on Bing’s engine prompted Google staff to setup an online sting to catch the catch the cheater in action. As Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land explains, “For the first time in its history, Google crafted one-time code that would allow it to manually rank a page for a certain term.… It then created about 100 of what it calls “synthetic” searches, queries that few people, if anyone, would ever enter into Google.”

With its manual one-time coding, typing those synthetic query terms would produce particular Web pages in Google search results, yet wouldn’t show anything in other search results produced by other engines. So if you typed in pre-determined garble like “hiybbprqag.” into Google, you would get the pre-determined search results the company had established as part of the sting– in this case, theatre tickets. If you typed “hiybbprqag” into Bing, however, you should get nothing.

So what was the result? As you probably could have guessed, in just a few short weeks when Google employees entered those synthetic search terms into Bing from their home computers, they were shocked to see Bing return the Google-specific search results, providing the company with enough evidence to accuse Microsoft of cheating.

Microsoft, for its part, didn’t exactly deny the fact that it was cheating off Google’s test paper, as it were, but it did deny any sort of wrong doing.

“As you might imagine,” Stefan Weitz, director of Microsoft’s Bing search engine said in defense of Bing, “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….Opt-in programs like the [Bing] toolbar help us with clickstream 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.” Simply put, sure Microsoft uses Google’s search results to help produce its own findings, but everyone in the industry does it.

In the end one thing is abundantly clear, Google is none too impressed by Microsoft’s stunt. However, what remains abundantly unclear is whether or not Microsoft is acting illegally, or simply unethically. But with federal regulations lagging agonizingly far behind the current tech market, we may have to wait awhile to find out.

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Jeff Wiener February 2, 2011 at 6:20 am

Lends credence to the phrase “if you can’t beat em, join em”.

Google’s a smart company. There must be something they could do to determine whether BING is scraping their search results real time, and if so, mess up the results.


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