Google accuses Microsoft’s Bing of copying in class

2 Feb 2011

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Microsoft’s Bing search engine is alleged by Google to have been watching what people search for on Google following a sting operation. Microsoft has denied the allegation.

Google’s sting operation is understood to have gathered evidence suggesting Bing watched what people were searching for on Google and then copied the information to improve its own search listing and boost relevance of its own results.

“I’d like to give you some background and details of our experiments that lead us to understand just how Bing is using Google web search results,” said Amit Singhal, Google Fellow in the search giant’s blog.

“It all started with tarsorrhaphy. Really. As it happens, tarsorrhaphy is a rare surgical procedure on eyelids. And in the summer of 2010, we were looking at the search results for an unusual misspelled query (torsorophy). Google returned the correct spelling – tarsorrhaphy – along with results for the corrected query. At that time, Bing had no results for the misspelling.

Bing

“Later in the summer, Bing started returning our first result to their users without offering the spell correction. This was very strange. How could they return our first result to their users without the correct spelling? Had they known the correct spelling, they could have returned several more relevant results for the corrected query.

“This example opened our eyes, and over the next few months we noticed that URLs from Google search results would later appear in Bing with increasing frequency for all kinds of queries: popular queries, rare or unusual queries and misspelled queries. Even search results that we would consider mistakes of our algorithms started showing up on Bing.”

Singhal and his team of engineers conducted an experiment that involved creating 100 synthetic enquiries that you would never expect a user to type such as ‘hiybbprgag’ and as a one-time experiment inserted a real web page as a top result that had nothing to do with the query.

“You can think of the synthetic queries with inserted results as the search engine equivalent of marked bills in a bank.”

Twenty engineers were issued with laptops and a fresh install of Windows running Internet Explorer 8 with Bing Toolbar installed along with the ‘Suggested Sites’ feature of IE8.

“We were surprised that within a couple weeks of starting this experiment, our inserted results started appearing in Bing,” Singhal said.

Bing blasts Google ‘spy novelesque’ approach

However, it seems Microsoft has a more scientific reason for the similarity of data saying it uses technologies like its toolbar and other sources to gather data to provide the best answers to a search.

“The Bing engineering team has been working hard over the past couple of years to deliver the best search relevance and quality in the industry and for our users. This is our top priority every day,” said Harry Shum, corporate vice-president of Bing in the company’s blog.

“We use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm. A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers, who opt in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users.

“To be clear, we learn from all of our customers. What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.

“The history of the web and the improvement of a broad array of consumer and business experiences is actually the story of collective intelligence, from sharing HTML documents to hypertext links to click data and beyond. Many companies across the internet use this collective intelligence to make their products better every day,” Schum said.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com