The world’s biggest Internet search company, Google Inc., is accusing rival Microsoft Corp. ‘s Bing of copying its results, a charge Microsoft denies.
“Some Bing results increasingly look like an incomplete, stale version of Google results – a cheap imitation,” wrote Amit Singhal, one of the company’s search engineers, on Google’s official blog. Google contacted the blog with the results of its investigation, and confirmed the report on Tuesday.
“Our testing has concluded that Bing is copying Google web search results, and Microsoft doesn’t deny this,” a Google spokesman said in an e-mail.
“At Google we strongly believe in innovation and are proud of our search quality. We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there, from Bing and others—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results copied from a competitor.”
Stefan Weitz, director of Bing, said in a statement that Microsoft uses “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,” he added.
Search Engine Land said Google first noticed something suspicious in October 2010, when “Bing was showing a much greater overlap with Google’s top 10 results than in preceding months.” There was also an increase in the number of times that Google and Bing had the same page as their top spot.
“We couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going on, and our suspicions became much stronger in late October 2010 when we noticed a significant increase in how often Google’s top search result appeared at the top of Bing’s ranking for a variety of queries,” according to the Google Blog.
“This statistical pattern was too striking to ignore. To test our hypothesis, we needed an experiment to determine whether Microsoft was really using Google’s search results in Bing’s ranking.”
Google took a phrase that the average Google user was unlikely to search – like “mbzrxpgjys” – and manually paired it with an unlikely search result, in this case the homepage for Research in Motion.
The experiment was repeated with nonsensical searches, including “hiybbprqag,” “delhipublicschool40 chdjob,” and “juegosdeben1ogrande,” which Google had designed to produce one result. Bing offered the same result, Google said.
These dummy search results were added to Google on December 17 and by December 31, about 9 of the 100 tests added to Google were showing up on Bing. Google told Search Engine Land that it doesn’t know why all the search results didn’t show up on Bing, but even a half dozen was enough to convince the search giant that some copying was going on.
How did it happen? Via IE’s Suggested Sites – which suggests similar Web sites you might want to visit – captures and sends data about your Google searches to Microsoft.
“We gave 20 of our engineers laptops with a fresh install of Microsoft Windows running Internet Explorer 8 with Bing Toolbar installed,” Amit Singhal wrote. “As part of the install process, we opted in to the “Suggested Sites” feature of IE8, and we accepted the default options for the Bing Toolbar.”
“We asked these engineers to enter the synthetic queries into the search box on the Google home page, and click on the results, i.e., the results we inserted,” he added. “We were surprised that within a couple weeks of starting this experiment, our inserted results started appearing in Bing.”
That event actually included an appearance by Matt Cutts, Google’s principal engineer, who faced off against Harry Shum, corporate vice president of search product development at Microsoft.
“Let me also say that it’s not like we actually copy anything; it’s really that we learn from the customers, who opt-in to share the data with us,” Shum said. “It’s where we learn from the customers – what types of queries they type, what queries they do.”
Cutts was doubtful and said that it sounded like Microsoft’s earlier statement admitted to copying results. Shum reiterated that Microsoft learns from its customers, and took issue with the notion that Google owns the data because a customer searches it via Google. Cutts responded that most users are not aware that their data is being encrypted and sent to Microsoft.
“My argument here is that [when] users use the search engine, they actually are willing to share the data with you,” Shum said. “They give you a search query and we all collectively use the data to improve the search quality and improve the search experience.”
“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,” wrote Amit Singhal on Google’s official blog. “To those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we’d like for this practice to stop.”
Microsoft’s Harry Shum also followed up with his own blog post. “We learn from all of our customers,” Shum said in the posting. “What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers” in some search rankings, he said.
“It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment,” Shum wrote. “But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.”
Shum insisted that Bing has a distinct approach and that Microsoft “never set out to build another version of an existing search engine.”
Google Inc. is trying to preserve its lead in search as Bing increases market share. Bing had 12 percent of U.S. searches in December, up from 11.8 percent the previous month, according to ComScore Inc. in Reston, Virginia. Google had 66.6 percent, up from 66.2 percent. [Google Blog and Bing Blog via Bloomberg]