Google catches Microsoft with pants down, copying search results
By Loz Blain
February 1, 2011
Google doesn't have a lot of competition in the search world – it rose from obscurity in the late 1990s to its current position of utter dominance on the back of its clever results ranking algorithm; Google is the megalithic entity it is today, because for the last decade people have chosen its results over MSN, Yahoo and other search options. And now it seems Microsoft's new(ish) search competitor, Bing, is copying Google results in order to make its own search results better. In an embarrassing sting operation, Google claims it has proven that Bing is taking Google search results and displaying them as if they're coming from the Bing engine – and you'd have to imagine the guys at Google are absolutely delighted.
Search team engineers at Google have proven that Microsoft's Bing is watching what people search for at Google, then altering its search results to match Google's.
Google engineers had suspected for some time that Bing was looking over their shoulders – competitive analysis has shown an increasing number of top-10 Google search hits appearing in the Bing top 10, including a very noticeable correlation in #1 hits, but this could be explained away if Bing was operating on a similar search algorithm to Google.
Web search algorithms are incredibly complex. Not only do search engines have to find relevant results based on keyword searches, they also have to filter out spam sites designed to take advantage of search engine traffic, rank how influential and authoritative each result is, and perform a thousand other tweaks to help users get what they're looking for.
One thing Google prides itself on is its ability to correct misspellings in the search box and return valid results for the correctly spelled search term - both for common misspellings and for others that have never been made yet. Type "Gimzag" into Google and straight away you'll receive search results for Gizmag.
And it's this ability to correct for misspellings, and Bing's seeming ability to bring up the same answers not long afterward, that finally gave Google a place to strike.
The sting setupGoogle engineers created around 100 bizarre search terms that it reasoned would never be used in an actual search – things like "hiybbprqag" and "mbzrxpgjys" – and wrote some sneaky manual code that pointed these search terms at particular pages.
The search terms didn't appear anywhere on the results pages, so there was nothing but Google's own search results to link these terms with the pages they brought up. So if these results started showing up on Bing, Microsoft would be caught red-handed stealing search results.
The Google engineers then went home, and booted up Internet Explorer with the Bing toolbar installed. They went to Google.com and started searching for the list of false search terms, and clicking on the results they'd planted.
Sure enough, within two weeks, you could search Bing for "hjybbprqaq" and get Google's planted search result. This didn't work for all the new search terms, but for 7 or 8 of them; enough to prove a point.
What does it mean?It means that it seems Internet Explorer, its 'Suggested Sites' feature and the Bing Toolbar appear to be watching what you search for at Google.com, then feeding those results back into its own search algorithm.
So if Microsoft's own search algorithm isn't finding the same things as Google, it seems Bing tends to correct itself towards the Google results.
For users, this means that Google can offer a more up-to-date search experience, since it seems to take Bing a few weeks to copy the results and start using them – and for Google, it's quite a PR piece.
Although it's a PR piece that might backfire - after all, in Microsoft's eyes, what Bing is doing is trying to improve the user experience. The toolbar setup is designed to check what people are searching for, see where they clicked through to, and then measure how long they spent on each of those pages, presuming that users will spend more time on relevant pages and less time on pages that shouldn't be ranked so high. And that does seem to be a clever way of helping build search rankings.
Still, it's an interesting spat to watch, and an interesting insight into how our search results are built, and the competitive, innovative environment in Silicon Valley.