02 February 2011

Google vs Bing - my tuppence worth.

As you probably know already, Google is accusing Microsoft of copying its search results on the Bing search engine. you can read a detailed account of the complaint here:
Google: Bing is Cheating, Copying Our Search Results

If you don't want to read all that, it basically says that Microsoft was using IE8 to capture the result of what people were searching for on Google, then copying that result, which would eventually appear on Bing. Google discovered this by adding "synthetic searches", searches made of random strings such as "mbzrxpgjys", added by Google engineers, that would only return results on Google itself. Strange, then, that they started to appear on Bing a few weeks after the Google engineers started searching for those terms using IE8 with the Bing Toolbar and the Suggested Sites feature switched on.

Is what Microsoft doing illegal? It's certainly cheeky, yet many sites use Google's search, albeit branded with a Google logo. I think the key to this is IE8.

The article above examines the T's and C's of IE8 and the Suggested Sites feature, which has 2 key points:
  • "addresses of websites you visit are sent to Microsoft, together with standard computer information."
  • "Information associated with the web address, such as search terms or data you entered in forms might be included."
By accepting these terms, you are in effect allowing IE8 to act as spyware, to monitor your web activity. It may well be used to improve your search results on Bing, but it also has the ability to glean information from Google search.

Personally I think passing off the Suggested Sites feature as something other than what it is - spyware - is dodgy in the first place, but the T's and C's probably do give adequate warning. Obviously information gathered by Suggested Sites is used to improve the search results for Bing, which is fair enough, but was the ulterior motive to scrape results from Google?

Aggregating results from search engines is common practice and can be quite useful, but if Microsoft want to use Google results in Bing, then it's only fair play to add the "powered by Google" logo next to them. If they're too precious to do that, then they should stop using Google's results, or at least pay Google to use their results without have to acknowledge the source.

At the end of the day, web searches are based on copying, storing and ranking information from all over the web, it's the forming of relevance and context which is the trick, something that Google nailed in the late 90's. As Isaac Newton admitted to "standing on the shoulders of giants" in order to create the Theory of Gravitation, Bing should be equally gracious if they are to use Google as a part of a utopian search service, vastly superior than its competitors. Bing certainly isn't that.

Cheats never prosper, unless you're Microsoft, which has arguably spent the last 30 odd years copying other peoples ideas. I'd like to think it's time for Google to give them a good hiding, but I doubt this will go any further than exposing Microsoft's practices to the public. If this did go to court, Google may have to openly explain how its precious algorithms work.

Google had concrete proof of this issue on December 31st, but waited until February 1st to release its findings - why? Because that was the date of the Farsight 2011 search engine conference, perfect timing to undermine everything Microsoft was to eulogise about Bing. Google seems to want to fight this battle with hearts and minds rather than through the courts (to date at least). Blog posts like this are popping up all over the web and if it only serves to steer your average computer user away from Internet Explorer, that can only be a good thing!

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