In a nutshell: Microsoft Bing uses data captured by the Suggested Sites feature in Internet Explorer and/or the Bing Toolbar to provide and rank search results on Bing. This in itself isn’t the issue — unless you’re an IE or Bing Toolbar user and didn’t previously realize what you’d opted in to. At issue are the experiments that Google conducted that they say prove that Bing is not simply using the collected data to inform their site indexing process; but instead establish that Bing is actually copying Google search results and displaying them as their own.
The Bing team’s response to Google’s accusations frames the process taking place as a crowdsource/clickstream hybrid instead of a straight-up copy operation; and I’ll bet Bing hasn’t limited their efforts to Google — search engines, even. Best-case scenario for Bing’s reputation: They’ve been factoring all browsing activity that users have permitted in Bing’s own site indexing and ranking logic, and anonymizing the data prior to acquisition. If this is the case, users have agreed to play a part; and one could reasonably argue that Bing is simply trying to serve those users well by using unconventional means to improve the experience of using their product.
As a developer and a user, I find myself sympathizing with Google’s position that Bing is doing something it shouldn’t. If Bing has in fact, targeted Google as a source for content and page rank, then it begs one to ask a few questions. If users can depend on Google to find the same content, is Bing really providing value? If Yahoo was willing to ink a deal with Bing prior to publishing Bing results on Yahoo properties, doesn’t it suggest that Bing should be willing to treat Google search results as something deserving valuation and requiring permission for use? Are search results on Bing — or by proxy, Yahoo — really the result of Google’s tech often enough to characterize Bing’s actions as stealing instead of competing?
If Bing is simply leveraging permitted, aggregated user behavior to benefit its users, I’ll probably file this episode away as a non-issue. If instead, Bing is cheating and stealing from Google, Bing deserves every bit of criticism and consequence it has coming.
Update – 2/7/2011: In a follow-up article on February 4, 2011, Bing: Why Google’s Wrong In Its Accusations, Danny Sullivan recounts his discussions with Bing’s Harry Shum and Stefan Weitz following the publication of the February 1st article discussed above. While Mr. Sullivan seems to give Bing a fair hearing, his conclusions are ambiguous. From my perspective, the account of Google’s accusations continues to move toward the “non-issue” category I discussed last week. Through Mr. Sullivan’s articles, we may have learned more about novel techniques search engines are using to provide relevant results, but we also witnessed over-eagerness result in a catalyst for sensationalism.
I wasn’t surprised by the techniques being employed by Bing, I wasn’t surprised that Google took issue with them, and I’m not surprised by Bing’s response. I was surprised however, that Mr. Sullivan decided to publish his first article without including the kind of detail he provided in the second. Until I hear otherwise, I’ll afford Mr. Sullivan the benefit of the doubt and assume that he made an effort to get a response from Bing, and details were not forthcoming.
Tact, discretion and balance are important components of journalism and blogging; and if they were underutilized in this case, we — journalists and bloggers alike — should all use this example to remind ourselves to stay disciplined.