Microsoft Continues to be Dishonest about Bing Copying Debacle

There’s been quite a brouhaha over Google’s accusation that Bing is copying their search results. Personally I think Google is overreacting, but regardless of my stance I really wish Bing would be clear about what’s happening. Even after two posts on the Bing blog it’s not clear how the “honeypot” queries and results that Google created are getting into Bing. The closest they’ve come to explaining what’s happening in detail has come from press interviews with Bing Director Stefan Weitz. Unfortunately he has been, either intentionally or not, dishonest about how Bing gets Google search data.

Here’s Google’s statement about their experiment from their initial post:

We gave 20 of our engineers laptops with a fresh install of Microsoft Windows running Internet Explorer 8 with Bing Toolbar installed. As part of the install process, we opted in to the “Suggested Sites” feature of IE8, and we accepted the default options for the Bing Toolbar.

We asked these engineers to enter the synthetic queries into the search box on the Google home page, and click on the results, i.e., the results we inserted. [Emphasis Added]

And here’s Bing’s Weitz in an interview with USA Today:

Google’s engineers basically issued a bunch of queries to Google from the Bing toolbar for that nonsensical word. They already had tuned the Google search engine to display a certain link when it saw that nonsensical word. By using the Bing toolbar, and then clicking on that link, the data flowed through normal processes back to Microsoft as it should. [Emphasis Added]

Do you see the difference? It’s one thing for Bing to associate search terms entered into its toolbar with the following pages visited, it’s entirely another to monitor the user’s activity for Google search URLs, extract the search term from the URL, and then associate that search term with the results the user visits. If Google’s description of their experiment is to be believed, and I think it is, then Bing is doing the latter and Weitz’s statement is wrong. Whether through ignorance or purposeful deception I don’t know.

What bothers Google so much and what I think Bing is dancing around is that Google’s results indicate that some programmer at Bing actually spent time writing code that extracted search terms from Google URLs, specifically Google URLs, to then associate those terms with whatever page the user clicked on from the results Google delivered. That’s what Bing doesn’t want to admit. They are trying to argue that the “copied” results are just side effects of generic clickstream processing. I don’t believe it.

In addition I think Microsoft is uncomfortable having this brought to light because of the privacy implications. As a user I would potentially anticipate Microsoft to track my queries from within the Bing toolbar, I would not expect them to track my queries from Google or any other search engine I navigated to.

What’s odd is that according to knowledgeable industry watchers, Microsoft has been upfront about these copying practices (at least among those in the search community) for several years.

Frankly I only think Bing’s “copying” of Google is wrong from a PR standpoint. It’s not illegal. It may be unethical to some, but I don’t personally feel that way. What I do think is unethical is being dishonest about it.