Search Engine Fight: Google’s Sting Against Microsoft’s Bing

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Here’s what happened.

Google suspected Microsoft’s new search engine, Bing, of copying some Google-ish search technology to display certain results to users.

The long version has been thoroughly covered by search expert Danny Sullivan but the basic story is that last May, some people at Google began to notice that Bing was returning the same search results as Google for misspelled words, except that while Google was correcting the misspelled words, Bing was not.

In this case, the word in question was "torsoraphy," which Google corrected to "tarsorrhaphy"—hardly a common word. Searching for "torsoraphy" on Bing would return the same results as Google but wouldn’t correct the word.

So Google set a trap.

The Honeypot

Google connected a bunch of gibberish words to ordinary search results for mundane web pages and added all the newly-matched terms to its algorithm. For instance, while searching for "mbzrxpgjys" on Google would normally return nothing, Google rigged it to return (the company that makes BlackBerry phones).


And guess what happened? Within a couple weeks, a search for "mbzrxpgjys" on Bing would return the website, too.


Google Calls Microsoft Out

Yesterday, Google posted an article on its blog titled "Microsoft’s Bing uses Google search results—and denies it" which basically details the same story mentioned above but finishes with the following:

"So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we’d like for this practice to stop."

There are other gems in the post as well, like "Bing results increasingly look like an incomplete, stale version of Google results—a cheap imitation."

And the timing of everything is pretty smirk-inducing as well (unless you’re Microsoft)—all this information dropped right before a big Bing-sponsored search summit called Farsight kicked off.

Microsoft Responds

Bing has a blog too, which it used to issue the following response:

"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 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."

Let’s examine the "extreme outliers in tail query ranking" and the "opt-in customer data" parts of that quote a little more closely.

Danny Sullivan’s original post states that out of the 100 gibberish honeypot pairings Google set up as part of the sting, fewer than 10 of them actually cropped up on Bing. Sullivan posits that Bing uses many of its own internally-developed search signals for more popular search topics but that it may be taking a page from Google’s playbook for more obscure terms:

"Google’s test suggests that when Bing has many of the traditional signals, as is likely for popular search topics, it relies mostly on those. But in cases where Bing has fewer trustworthy signals, such as ‘long tail’ searches that bring up fewer matches, then Bing might lean more on how Google ranks pages for those searches."

And how is Bing supposedly collecting all this data about how Google searches are conducted? The answer may lie in Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer web browser, which contains an optional "Suggested Sites" feature and an optional Bing toolbar that both collect anonymous browsing information from users. Google says the following:

"As we see it, this experiment confirms our suspicion that Bing is using some combination of:

  • Internet Explorer 8, which can send data to Microsoft via its Suggested Sites feature
  • the Bing Toolbar, which can send data via Microsoft’s Customer Experience Improvement Program

or possibly some other means to send data to Bing on what people search for on Google and the Google search results they click. Those results from Google are then more likely to show up on Bing."

Then things got really interesting.

Google Appears at Microsoft’s Bing Event

Despite the timing of all this information’s release, Google’s own Matt Cutts was scheduled to appear on a panel at the Bing-sponsored event, Farsight, mentioned earlier. Also on the panel: Microsoft’s Harry Shum, the same guy that wrote Microsoft’s response to Google on Bing’s blog.

CNET recounts that Cutts and Shum effectively derailed the panel in the interest of taking shots at one another, with Shum accusing Google of making "a lot of money from spam and low-quality content monetized by AdSense ads." The same article says that before the panel started, Google’s Cutts "made the rounds at the conference center… with a laptop open to four screenshots comparing the fake queries Google constructed and the results page with the same queries on Bing."

So no love lost, in other words.

Microsoft Responds Again

In another post on Bing’s blog today, Microsoft SVP of online services Yusuf Mehdi states bluntly:

"We do not copy results from any of our competitors. Period. Full stop. We have some of the best minds in the world at work on search quality and relevance, and for a competitor to accuse any one of these people of such activity is just insulting."

He then defends Microsoft’s use of "anonymous click stream data" like the stuff gathered from the Suggested Sites feature and Bing toolbar as "one of more than a thousand inputs" that go into Bing’s search algorithm.

Okay, case closed. Time to shake hands and go home for dinner, right?

Uh oh, there’s more:

"Google engaged in a ‘honeypot’ attack to trick Bing. In simple terms, Google’s ‘experiment’ was rigged to manipulate Bing search results through a type of attack also known as ‘click fraud.’ That’s right, the same type of attack employed by spammers on the web to trick consumers and produce bogus search results.  What does all this cloak and dagger click fraud prove? Nothing anyone in the industry doesn’t already know. As we have said before and again in this post, we use click stream optionally provided by consumers in an anonymous fashion as one of 1,000 signals to try and determine whether a site might make sense to be in our index."

Followed by:

"In October 2010 we released a series of big, noticeable improvements to Bing’s relevance. So big and noticeable that we are told Google took notice and began to worry. Then a short time later, here come the honeypot attacks. Is the timing purely coincidence? Are industry discussions about search quality to be ignored? Is this simply a response to the fact that some people in the industry are beginning to ask whether Bing is as good or in some cases better than Google on core web relevance?"

Google has yet to respond but something tells me we may be due for at least a couple more volleys seeing that the rhetoric has now escalated to include some more forceful language. I’ll update this post as things develop.

UPDATE: Matt Cutts’ (of Google) blog post (2/3/11)

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