Is Bing Copying Google?

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Reports have surfaced alleging that Bing has been copying Google's search results.  Google claims to have verified this with a "sting" operation in which they rigged their search engine to return a bogus page for terms for which no one would normally search, had some employees search for those terms using Internet Explorer with the Bing toolbar from home, and lo and behold Bing started returning the same bogus pages for the same meaningless keywords.

You can see the original article and Bing's response.  Bing essentially admits that for users who opt-in, it records usage data (like clicks on Google) and uses that as one of many factors determining search engine results. Search engines for a long time have used people's observed behavior on search results pages to influence ranking -- if people keep clicking (and staying) on the result the search engine is returning 3rd for a query, then it might get promoted to 1st. This would be the first time that a search engine (has been caught) doing this with another search engine's results.

So, what's the difference?  Google would have you believe that Bing is stealing their search results, and that's partially true. Search result quality can be measured along two axes, precision and recall.  Roughly, higher precision mean better search results up top, and higher recall means the page you're looking for is more likely to appear in the search results at all.

In my opinion, what Bing is doing to up their precision is mostly legitimate.  They're presenting users with a bunch of choices of links to click (which happen to come from Google), and using their behavior to influence Bing's sense of what makes a good search result for a query. But, a less morally clear side effect is to up their recall -- if a user clicks on a link that Google includes in their search results that Bing does not, then the sting would have us believe that Bing will add that URL to its results, thereby increasing its recall on Google's back. But, both Bing and Google include most popular web pages in their search results already, so what we're really arguing about is recall at the long tail of the web.

The long tail of the web are the massive number of web pages that are highly relevant to a small number of infrequently search phrases. Since these aren't popular web pages, many try to argue that they don't matter, but, in fact, these are precisely the pages over which the next search engine battle is likely to be fought. Bing and Google both have money, they can pay an army to crowdsource good results for the top 10k, 100k, 1m results. But, they can't pay for good results for the next 100m or 1b queries, so it might make sense to seed Bing's view of the long tail on Google's back - even if they get caught in a sting.

It will be interesting to see what happens here. Is your usage data on Google the de facto property of Google, or can you choose to donate (or sell) it to the likes of Microsoft? Does this come down to Microsoft attempting to use its dominance in the browser market to hedge in on Google's dominance in web search?  Will Danny Sullivan discover that Steve Balmer is his long lost step brother in law?  Only time will tell.  
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This page contains a single entry by Jeff published on February 2, 2011 11:37 AM.

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