Google and Bing trade blows on ‘copying’ saga

February 2, 2011

The Internet search world was rocked by a rare spell of intrigue and acrimony on Tuesday, as Google, the world’s No. 1 search company accused rival Microsoft of copying its search results, leading to a public slap-fight between the two tech giants.

“This is the first time in my 20-year career that I am seeing such unethical behavior in another company,” Google Fellow Amit Singhal declared in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, following an earlier blog post in which he accused Microsoft of providing “recycled search results.”


Microsoft was quick to return fire, insisting it did not copy Google’s search results and describing Google as engaging in everything from “creative tactics” to click fraud. Microsoft PR honcho Frank Shaw unleashed a fusillade of Tweets throughout the day, stating in one of them that Google was seeking to change the subject because the company was under investigation in the U.S. and Europe for manipulating search results.

The brouhaha started after the tech blog SearchEngineLand ran a story about a sting operation that Google engineers conducted in December to prove suspicions about Microsoft copying its search results. In the “scientific experiment,” Singhal said that Google tweaked its search engine so that searches for certain gibberish phrases returned specific results – for example a search on Google for the nonsensical term “hiybbprqag” would deliver a link to the Wiltern arena in Los Angeles as a top result.

Google then had about 20 of its engineers perform Google searches for the fake terms on laptops equipped with the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser and a Bing toolbar. Sure enough, says Singhal, within a couple of weeks, a search for “hiybbprqag” on Microsoft’s Bing search engine also returned a link to the Wiltern arena.

According to Singhal, the evidence is overwhelming that Microsoft was tracking the searches performed on Google and adjusting its own Bing search engine based on the results. “This was scientific enough that I would be happy to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal any day,” Singhal said. But Microsoft said Google’s experiment is hardly conclusive.

“What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking,” Bing Corporate Vice President Harry Shum said in a blog post on Tuesday. “It doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience,” he said. Whether this turns out to be anything more than a public relations battle between the two tech giants remains to be seen.

Google said it is not commenting on any legal considerations that may arise from the situation. And while Singhal said he does not believe the examples he found are isolated cases, he said he doesn’t have any plans to run any more “experiments.”


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Sadly, the “scientific experiment” is not scientific. The phrase “after a couple of weeks” strongly implies that the first time they typed the search term into Bing they got no results whatever. So Bing had already been exposed to the search term by the time the decoy result got returned. In order to support Google’s hypothesis, Bing would have had to return the decoy result the very first time it saw the search term.

While it may be questionable practice for a search engine to “sub contract” a search term which is repeatedly entered in a short period of time and which returns no results, this is not what Google is alleging, yet it’s not ruled out by the experiment.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

“Bing would have had to return the decoy result the very first time it saw the search term.”

Really? I’m a web developer and my experience with Search Engines, is that it generally takes a few weeks for the pages they crawl to end up in user-end searches. I would expect that it would also take a few weeks for information it took from Google search to have an effect on user results.

Posted by somewhere1234 | Report as abusive