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Hiybbprqagate: Google, Bing, and the Burning Building

Danny Goodwin
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"You wake up in the morning, your paint's peeling, your curtains are gone, and the water is boiling. Which problem do you deal with first? None of them! The building's on fire!"

Cheating. Copying. Stealing. These three words have been repeated ad nauseum over the past few days, and it's not just because blogs and mainstream media websites have bothered to check their thesaurus for an original verb that adequately describes the ongoing flame wars between Google and Bing this week.

The quote that opened this post is from fictional character Gregory House, M.D. Of late, Google has woken up to its fair share of problems. An EU investigation, the fight to acquire ITA software, Street View, allegations of bias, the never-ending Viacom situation, China, lawsuits, and mounting criticism of their baby: organic results.

It was only a matter of time before this happened. After all, there's no more "adult supervision" and Kara Swisher believes this attack has Larry Page written all over it. All bets are off.

Dance, Puppet, Dance

The debate has been raging like a wildfire. And it all started with one match.

In this case, the match came in the form of a story conveniently timed to publish on another search industry site hours before BigThink's Farsight 2011 conference on Tuesday, Feb. 1 (sponsored by Bing no less). This, even though Google "knew" about this starting around October of last year and the tests were conducted in December.

Google handed the website this exclusive incendiary story, and as the headline and images contained within that post poured over the Internet, spreading like gasoline, it ignited accusing headline after accusing headline like an echo chamber.

Google knew this would happen. They wanted this to happen. Now there are 900 (and counting) stories about Bing copying Google's search results in Google News. The story hit mainstream media sites, news reports, and yes, even The Colbert Report.

A simple search for [Google Bing] brings up the Official Google Blog post in the first organic spot "Microsoft's Bing uses Google search results -- and denies it."

The best part is the opening line: "By now, you may have read..."

Google plants the story in the press. It gets picked up (because controversy and pageviews are crack for blogs). Suddenly it's more legitimate and not just a calculated hit job/smear campaign.

Except, it is. But hey, points for being so transparent about it, Google.

Oh, and don't feel bad for our pro-Google puppet. No doubt, he had plenty of page views and helpful links from nearly every site I follow via RSS. Surely, the growing negative backlash won't do any long-term damage...right?

The Building is Still on Fire

So you're Google. Your beloved engineer Matt Cutts is about to be on a panel with Harry Shum, Corporate VP of Core Search Development at Microsoft, and Rich Skrenta of Blekko. The moderator, Vivek Wadhwa, has just written a critique of your search results.

So what are you going to do about the mess that's been created?

Change the conversation. Aggressively talk about Bing copying results. Fan the flames. Misdirect. Bully.

Spam? Irrelevant results? Made for AdSense sites?

BUT BING'S STEALING OUR DATA!

So What?!

In addition to setting the Bing name ablaze all over the web, Cutts even managed to implant the idea in anyone who saw the video that Google's results are somehow untouchable or superior, and that Google owns the web. Google does not own the web index.

This is a fallacy. Google the logo is a bigger determinant of satisfaction that their actual results, according to Chris Copeland who wrote "Spy Games - Search Engine Wars Go Public" for ClickZ. He recounts a tale from a former Ask engineer:

"When the [Google] logo was removed, the results swung to neutral or favored Ask. When the [Google] logo moved to the Ask page, the satisfaction went way up," Copeland wrote.

That said, public sentiment is definitely turning against Google as a result of this whole affair. Some people are losing respect for Google's behavior.

Those Who Live in Burning Houses Shouldn't Throw Molotov Cocktails

Like Google, Bing uses hundreds (or thousands) of signals for ranking sites. The big issue here revolves around the clickstream data collected from the Bing toolbar or Suggest Sites feature in Internet Explorer. Basically, clickstream data is a log of what people click on when browsing the web.

Cutts denies that Google uses data from Google's Chrome web browser for the purposes of ranking (i.e., when a user goes to Bing on and performs a search), a claim which many industry vets scoff at.

Perhaps Google is just upset they didn't think of this tactic first?

Regardless, both companies make no secret that they collect data about search queries and clicks with their respective toolbars. In a statement blasting Google for the "spy-novelesque stunt," Shum wrote that Bing uses this data as one factor to improve its results -- learning from customer behavior. That is a far cry from outright copying them.

Just because Google doesn't (or claims not to) use one set of data doesn't mean Bing must stop. If Bing asks Google to stop using page speed as a ranking factor, will they?

And Bing has pointed to some features Google picked up after Bing debuted (e.g., image search, left navigation, Twitter integration, ability to add photo to background of Google's home page).

7-9 Out of 100?

Another important point: this is not a direct copy of results. Some seem confused by this.

No, actually, out of 100 tests, supposedly Google only found between 7 and 9 instances where Bing returned results Google blatantly manipulated to test how Bing discovers and ranks certain pages.

"What the Google folks did, as you probably saw, they choose words that would never be issued by a human, a bunch of gobbledygook basically, and then they artificially ranked those pages they indicated highly in the Google index, so they basically faked the ranking in Google," Bing Director Stefan Weitz told CNET "It doesn't scale up to a popular term in the same way that we have tremendously sophisticated systems to detect clickfraud, and they were pretty clever in how they did it. Good subterfuge."

Yes, Google indeed can manipulate its own search algorithm. No doubt this will turn into more ammunition for Ben Edelman's crusade against Google.

Hiybbprqagate

Just yesterday, Matt Cutts was at it again, desperately trying to prove his case. Have you seen these "Bing sting" words?

  • hiybbprqag (as an aside, hiybbprqag.com now redirects to the Google jobs page http://www.google.com/intl/en/jobs/index.html ... guess they're trying to add to the 75,000 applications they've already received)
  • delhipublicschool40 chdjob
  • ygyuuttuu hjhhiihhhu
  • mbzrxpgjys
  • juegosdeben1ogrande
  • jjudgefallon
  • indoswiftjobinproduction

Here's some of what Matt had to say:

Matt: "I think if you asked a regular person about these screenshots, Microsoft's 'We do not copy Google's results' statement wouldn't ring completely true."

Actually, a regular person might wonder why Google looked for such bizarre, obscure search terms that are bound to have too few a number of results for a fair comparison.

Also, Google has done such a masterful job of getting its message out in all the headlines that Google's version of the "truth" has been sold perfectly. With my newspaper background, I know a majority of "regular" people scan headlines and don't bother to dig in to stories they don't really care about. Does anyone outside the search/tech industry honestly give a crap about the details of this debate?

Matt: "This is at least one concrete example of Microsoft taking browser data and using it to mine data deliberately and specifically from Google (in this case, the efforts of Google's spell correction team)."

This is at least one example of Google scraping a site's data and holding it hostage (in this case, the efforts of TripAdvisor). Google's whole business model is profiting off of other people's work.

Matt: "I don't think an average consumer realizes that if they say 'yes, show me suggested sites' that they're granting Microsoft permission to send their queries and clicks on Google to Microsoft, which will then be used in Bing's ranking."

Do you honestly think an average person knows what an algorithm is, and if so, does that person care if they use Google data to improve their rankings? Half the blogs covering this issue still don't understand rankings and algorithms, opting rather to focus on the theater. Also, it's well-known that most people don't really read all those privacy policies, they just click OK or I Agree and move on.

Matt: "If clicks on Google really account for only 1/1000th (or some other trivial fraction) of Microsoft's relevancy, why not just stop using those clicks and reduce the negative coverage and perception of this?"

Matt isn't convincing anyone here who isn't already a dedicated Google/Cutts fan. Matt is the source of this negative coverage, and the tide is turning against him. Also: Bing owes Google nothing here.

Matt: "It's because of how hard those engineers work that I think Microsoft should stop using clicks on Google in Bing's rankings."

And don't forget the children and puppies!

Shut Up, Innovate
What now? Everyone at Google and Bing needs to shut up and stop blogging and tweeting at each other. Stop setting fires. Stop being a "cheap imitation" of adults working for billion dollar companies.

Quit wasting time on sting operations. Prioritize. Go innovate search.

Take your team of smart engineers and do your jobs: focus on improving search quality for the users.

May the better search engine win.


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