The Bing and the Beautiful

This is a guestpost by Jeroen Smeekens from E-Difference (original post in Dutch). Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily State of Search.

The last couple of days we have seen a new soap opera unfolding, brought to us by….Google. What happened? Google accused Bing of stealing their search results. A serious allegation, and it created a lot of buzz in the search landscape over the last 48 hours (and still counting). And even I have to admit I jumped on the bandwagon and was quick to report the news about big bad Microsoft stealing poor Google’s search results.

Let’s be honest: Microsoft stealing from Google, that’s big news! Right? Right… Although the storm hasn’t completely settled and in the coming hours and days we will continue to see articles being posted, this might just be the right time to revisit Google’s initial accusation and the reactions thus far.

How it all started

Tuesday February 1st, Search Engine Land published a “research” done by Google. For the complete overview read their post, but here’s a summary:

  1. Google noticed that Bing’s search results showed more and more comparisons to Google’s.
  2. Google suspected Bing from stealing, among others via click-data gathered by users using the Bing Toolbar in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
  3. Google decides to do an “experiment” and manually ranks 100 pages for 100 very obscure search terms like “hiybbprqag”.
  4. Google has 20 employees search for these terms at home, using Internet Explorer and all. They let their employees click on the search results Google rigged.
  5. After a while about 7-9 (there is some uncertainty about the actual amount) searches for those obscure terms showed the exact same page at the top as Google. That is: Bing showed the pages that Google falsely put on top in Google.
  6. Google’s conclusion: Bing is stealing!

The media

Boooooh Microsoft! Stealing from your competitor! Everyone who has a voice in search (and that is basically…everyone) was talking about it (and still are). The article even reached the traditional media and was featured prominently on big news channels here in The Netherlands. And, to be fair, I myself covered the story too. Big news, so it seems. But what stands out, and that is something few people paid attention too, is the timing. Google released its research (via Search Engine Land) just before Bing’s big search event Farsight Summit: Future of Search. An event at which both Bing and Google were to attend (and a lot of big names would be there).

What’s even more odd, is that Google waited 30 days before releasing the information. Sounds fishy? Yeah, kinda.

And now I have even heard people wondering if Search Engine Land is being used as Google’s personal PR machine. Well, it did pay off for Search Engine Land: we can only guess what kind of traffic the article drove, but as I am writing this, over 9.206 people tweeted the article and 13.802 liked it via Facebook. And also 9.476 Google employees spread the article via Google Buzz (because, let’s be honest: who uses Google Buzz, except Google employees?).

The initial reactions

At first, everyone was talking about Microsoft’s “foul play”. Shame on them! How dare they! Come up with your own algorithm! Go search somewhere else! It was of course Google who found the whole ordeal the most “shocking”, but by releasing an article called “Google: Bing Is Cheating, Copying Our Search Results” you are already making sure people are being biased. Even before they read the article. That is, IF they even read the (entire) article.

And when even Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam Team and one of Google’s most prominent people in SEO, asks if we could pretty please with sugar on top retweet the article, people are bound to think it is serious business (begging for a retweet, shame on you).

And so even I followed the pack and gave my opinion about it. About how I was disappointed that Bing had the urge to look at Google (in my defense though, I didn’t shoot them down). Here in The Netherlands Google is almighty and I was actually hoping that Microsoft would go the extra mile and enter the Dutch search market. So I was disappointed about how strongly they looked to their competitor…..but are they really? Or is Google just exaggerating?

The response

So a lot of people joined the parade and pointed at Bing, but luckily there were others who took the time to revisit the article, the research and actually digged deeper. One of the most interesting posts I encountered was from Direct Match Media. They gave some very sound counter arguments. For instance, only 9 out of 100 search results were “copied” by Bing. 9% isn’t exactly what you would could statistically significant and could (should?) therefore easily be rejected. Another important point: Microsoft (and Bing) use User Data and Click Data as signals in their ranking algorithm. This is a well known fact and users themselves choose to send their user and click data anonymously to Bing. This can all be read in their privacy policies and user policies. It’s not some secret revelation.

Also: click data is an important factor and represents actual human behavior on the web. It is quite understandable this is taken into account. And this is just one of 1.000 signals Bing says they are using in their algorithm.

Direct Match Media also states that when you disable the other 999 signals (as Google did, there wasn’t any reason why these pages should rank for those weird search terms), the only signal that is left is….yes…wait for it…click data! And when their own employees start clicking those SERP’s frantically, it seems sound that the human behavior is taking into account and some of those pages are shown for those search queries.

Bing has also given some reactions to Google’s PR stunt. First of all, they reacted to the “ill timed” article and stressed again that click data is only a very small part of their algorithm, that its publicly known that they use this data and that people actually choose to share their data with Bing (anonymously). They also rejected any accusation and called Google’s actions “spy-novelesque” and a “back-handed compliment”.

In a later statement by Bing, they again state that they never copy search results from their competitors. Bing has always been open about the use of user data and click data. Google’s action can, so believes Bing, be compared with a “click fraud attack”, an attack used by spammers to fool consumers by making search engines produce false/bad search results.

Bing then questions Google’s motives and the timing of the publication. Recently, Bing has undergone a lot of changes and updated their algorithm, so that it produces even better results (says Bing). Could it be that Google can feel Bing’s breathing down their neck more and more? Are they scared of the competition?

My (reviewed) opinion

Now that I have had the time to let Google’s publication sink in a bit, and that I have gotten around reading the explanations and opinions of others, I find myself thinking that Google has tried to cross Bing. It could also be that Google is trying to distract people from the increase in spam, since their changes battling spam haven’t (fully) been implemented yet.

Bing also, and rightfully so, pointed the finger at Google, saying that they have copied some stuff of off Bing themselves (like their image search). And as State of Search cleverly remarked, Google is also “site that uses data from other sites to ‘sell’ their own stuff“.

The disappointment I initially had has gone away. Taking into account user and click data as one of the 1.000 signals seems logical. Google’s actions now come off as backstabbing and aren’t very sympathetic. It’s also a fight about nothing really. The best Bing can do now is come back strong and perhaps increase their presence in Europe. Taking away users from Google, and with that money, now that is going to hurt. Time will tell.

Tune in next week for another episode of…..

About State of Digital Guest Contributor

This post was written by an author who is not a regular contributor to State of Digital. See all the other regular State of Digital authors here. Opinions expressed in the article are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of State of Digital.

3 thoughts on “The Bing and the Beautiful

  1. Hey Jeroen (is your entire office called Jeroen? 😉 ),

    thank you for this guespost, I like it a lot (otherwise I wouldn’t have published it).

    I do think that there is ‘more’ to it than meets the eye. And Google ‘accused’ Bing for a reason. But also Bing maybe wasn’t ‘doing’ it too smart. I think there is not a lot wrong with looking at how others and ‘better’ competitors are doing. I look at Searchengineland for example and learn from them. On the radioshow this Tuesday I made the comparison to the car-business: they keep copying what others do. As with Microsoft and Apple. All the ‘good things’ are in the end copied. That will just improve the initial products. So I think Bing can get better by looking at Google, which I would like them to be, because they need competition.

    There is one thing in your article I wanted to adress. You mention that some people believe SEL has turned into a PR-machine of Google. I think I know some of those people 😉 but I disagree there. As a publisher I can completely understand how and why SEL posted this article. The title is a quote from Google and is one which everybody instantly clicks on, they want to read that! So even though it might bias people, from a publisher point of view, its a good one.
    Also, like Danny himself stated in the comments of his article: if Google comes to you with this story, you run it, period. This is too big of a story to let go. The only thing Danny failed to do is get Bing’s response in the article.

  2. Hey Bas,

    First of all, thanks for posting this. There is actually a third Jeroen here at the office, so you always get a response when you call out for Jeroen 😉

    This article actually came to me after my initial reaction was a bit too strong. I was a bit too quick to judge Bing and not look at Google. There is middleground here and both parties probably could have done some stuff a bit better. In the end, I am just hoping for better search engines, and especially hoping that Bing is going to up their game here in The Netherlands.

    As for the PR comment, I already told my colleague here that it is totally understandable that that article got published. Who wouldn’t have done it, it’s a big piece from Google themselves. But lacking the response from Bing I found it a bit one sided and thought that comment was a fun poke. Otherwise, great scoop ofcourse.

    Anyways, thanks for posting and I hope to have shed some light on the whole “soap opera” between Bing and Google with a wink and a nod.

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