Google’s Bing Sting: caught stealing search?

Grace Robinson
2 February, 2011
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Google has accused Microsoft’s Bing of copying, claiming it uses Google results to improve their search listings.

Suspicion first came into play when the word ‘tarsorrhaphy’ – a rare surgical procedure on the eyelids – was identified by the Google team as a misspelled query (‘torsorophy’) on their site. Google amended the spelling of the word as well as results for the corrected query. At the time Bing did not have any results for the misspelling. Then, it was discovered that Bing had started listing Google’s first search result, without the spelling correction. The correlation raised several questions. How could Bing return Google’s first result without the correct spelling for tarsorrhaphy? If Bing had been aware of the correct spelling, wouldn’t there have been other credible results for the query?

Google also observed that URLs from its search results would later appear on Bing for all types of queries including: popular queries, misspelled queries and unusual, rarely searched queries. Furthermore, Google’s top search result for a variety of queries was frequently appearing on Bing’s ranking. Considering this too much of a coincidence, Google decided to set up a sting operation to corroborate their suspicions

‘We created about 100 “synthetic queries”—queries that you would never expect a user to type, such as [hiybbprqag]. As a one-time experiment, for each synthetic query we inserted as Google’s top result a unique (real) webpage which had nothing to do with the query’, writes Amy Singhal, software engineer at Google.

Before Google’s experiment went live, the searches returned little or no matches on Google or Bing. Enabling the code, Google then placed a honeypot page to appear at the top of every synthetic search.

‘The only reason these pages appeared on Google was because Google forced them to be there. There was nothing that made them naturally relevant for these searches. If they started to appeared at Bing after Google, that would mean that Bing took Google’s bait and copied its results’, Singhal adds.

A number of Google engineers ran the test queries from laptops using Internet Explorer, with the Bing Toolbar and Suggested Sites both enabled. They were also advised to click on the top search results. The engineers began the experiment on December 17 2010. Just two weeks later some of the results were appearing on Bing.

In response to Google’s claims, Stefan Weitz, director of Microsoft’s Bing emailed Singhal this statement:

‘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 statement didn’t categorically deny that Bing is copying Google information, forcing a company spokesman to later issue this denial

‘ We do not copy Google’s results’

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