Search wars: Google accuses Microsoft of search result theft

By Abhinav Lal Published Date
02 - Feb - 2011
| Last Updated
02 - Feb - 2011
Search wars: Google accuses Microsoft of search result theft

While Google’s own search neutrality has been under question for a while, no-one has accused them of taking the easy way out (of anything). Now, after the rather incontrovertible evidence that Google’s sting operation has uncovered about Bing’s search practices, we are hard-pressed to think Microsoft is doing otherwise.

The search for evidence of “search result theft” began in December, 2010, months after Google first noticed some suspicious behaviour with Bing’s results in May of 2010. The search team realized Microsoft's Bing was picking up Google's results when it showed a top-ranked result for an obscure query that was identical to Google's. While Google’s search auto-suggested the corrected search query “tarsorrhaphy” for the commonly misspelled query ‘tarsoraphy’, Microsoft’s Bing showed the corrected result as the top ranked one, without any query correction evident in its other results. 

Caught in the act

Tarsorrhaphy on Google


delhipublicschool40 chdjob on Google

Tarsorrhaphy on Bing
delhipublicschool40 chdjob on Bing

The Bing Sting operation quite literally planted search-candy Google calls “honeypot” for Bing’s snooping eyes, and then caught them staring. Google manually assigned results to obscure or near-random search queries that didn’t previously offer results, and then asked a bunch of its engineers to search for these unique queries using Internet Explorer 8 with the Bing Toolbar installed. And lo, Bing displayed the same search results for the same queries.

After SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan revealed the findings of Google’s ‘Bing Sting’ operation – detailed with screenshots – Microsoft’s Stefan Weitz, the director of Bing, issued the following statement to those who asked:

"We use multiple signals and approaches in ranking search results. 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."

ZDNet wanted to know more, and Microsoft obliged them with a dismissive retort:

"We do not copy Google's results."

This denial might have been exactly what Google was waiting for before officially stepping in to the fray, for a short while later, Google’s foremost search doctors, Amit Singhal, posted this evidence on Google’s Official Blog, in a post that was unblinkingly titled: “Microsoft’s Bing uses Google search results—and denies it”. The post directly accused Microsoft of snooping into Google’s search results, using “some combination” of IE8 and Bing Toolbar, or “possibly some other means” to take Google search results from users’ computers.

Microsoft’s Harry Schrum questioned the timing of this entire affair on the Bing blog, finding it conspicuously preceding the Farsight Summit for search quality. His lengthy blog post defended Bing’s search practices in a similar manner to Stefan Weitz reply, claiming Bing uses “over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm. A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers, who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users.”

[RELATED_ARTICLE]Schrum went on to call the Bing Sting a “spy-novelesque stunt” that only generated “extreme outliers in tail query ranking”, referring to the creation of honeypot search results for result-less search queries.

So, “opt-in programs” like the Bing toolbar help Microsoft to “learn from [their] collective customers”, and Schrum’s advice elaborates “we all should.” It’s for perhaps this reason he found the entire Bing Sting a “back-handed compliment”, probably referring to Bing’s efficacy of picking up Google’s search results, oops, anonymous user data.

Google’s stance on the issue remains lofty however, with no compliments in sight, calling Bing “a cheap imitation” of Google, and asking “for this practice to stop.”

“We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor.”


Abhinav LalAbhinav Lal