Microsoft stealing Google search results to improve Bing [Update]

The search engine wars certainly just took an interesting turn. According to Search Engine Land, Google just completed a sting operation of sorts, proving that Bing is copying search results. The Bing Toolbar is used to watch what users search for on Google, the sites that the users end up clicking on after the search is complete, and then use that data to improve their own search results. According to Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow in charge of ranking algorithms, Bing is simply cheating.

“I’ve spent my career in pursuit of a good search engine. I’ve got no problem with a competitor developing an innovative algorithm. But copying is not innovation, in my book.”

The spell correction that Google uses in its engine was used to first spot the possible monitoring by Bing. Results given by Google after correcting a misspelling were being given by Bing without correcting the spelling. After analyzing data and realizing that something fishy may be afoot, Google devised a plan to uncover what was really going on. This operation would mark the first time Google has tampered with its own search results, and it shows how important this was to them.  Google made a honeypot search result that would pop up if a user typed in a totally illogical word. For example, if you typed in a string like “afdgeissoxss”, Google would return a page discussing the historical relevance of unicorns. After a while, Bing search results would show the unicorn page as a result for the illogical string.

Although caught red-handed, Microsoft is not backing down; in fact, they admit that this kind of activity was going on in some fashion. According to Stefan Weitz, director of the Bing search engine,

“As you might imagine, 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. Clearly, the overarching goal is to do a better job determining the intent of the search, so we can guess at the best and most relevant answer to a given query.

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.”

The operation was by no means conclusive. The search results are also still by no means identical in any way, shape, or form. However, the fact that Microsoft was willing to admit so readily to the allegations shows how ruthless this business can be. While the possibility of charges being filed are quite slim, Google is not happy about the situation, which it views as petty cheating. However, business is business, and if Microsoft seems to have found a way to improve their search results, nice or not, it’s Google’s turn to step up and improve themselves as well.

Update: According to ZDnet, Microsoft has replied with a definitive "We do not copy Google’s results." Now, it's up to Microsoft to refute the claims made by Google that they are using Google's search results to bolster their own. Until Microsoft gives a more detailed response, possibly at today's Bing event, this direct response is all they're willing to give. More details to come.   

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