Google Accusing Bing of Copying Search Results: Who's Right?

A riveting tale of search, sting operations, and honeypots

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Google thinks search rival Bing is cheating, plain and simple. Here's why:

In December, Google--concerned that Microsoft's search engine was acting too darn Google-like--launched what Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan calls a "sting operation." The search giant generated 100 gibberish search terms that yielded few if any results on Google or Bing and then--clasping its hands together, cocking its head back, and unleashing a peal of maniacal laughter--set its trap. Engineers planted irrelevant "honeypot" pages at the top of the results for these nonsensical search queries. Two weeks later, they found that Bing surfaced these same fabricated results for just under a tenth of the 100 terms.

Google accused Bing of monitoring--in particular via Internet Explorer and the Bing toolbar--what people search for and click on at Google in order to enhance their own search engine. Google's Amit Singhal said it was as if his company was "running a marathon and carrying someone else on [its] back, who jumps off just before the finish line." Bing's Harry Shum, meanwhile, called Google's sting operating a "spy-novelesque stunt" and added that "we use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm" to learn from customers, as all search engines do.

So, which side has the moral high ground in this search spat?

  • Bing Should Revamp Its Strategy, concludes Search Engine Land's Sullivan, who broke the story: "Bing should develop its own search voice without using Google's as a tuning fork."
  • Google Should Get Even, Not Mad, argues Jeff Bercovici at Forbes. He suggests a slogan for Google's next marketing campaign: "Google: Search So Good, Even Bing Uses It."
  • Google's Being Childish, claims TechDirt's Mike Masnick. He contends that Google, facing mounting complaints about the quality of its search results (see Wire coverage here), is unfairly attacking a competitor rather than improving its search experience.
  • And Hypocritical, adds Christopher Mims at MIT's Technology Review:

If the internet is a food chain comprised of information, Google has long been its apex predator--the megalodon in a sea of small fry foolish enough to try to eke out a living by actually creating content rather than just pointing people to it. Now, for the first time ever, Google not only has competition, but competition savvy enough to deploy the same perfectly legal tactics upon which Google's vast fortunes rest.

  • Bing's Excuse Is Ridiculous, asserts Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post: "If I'd said 'I'm not cheating, Mr. Zimand, I am simply using Medora's test answers as information to help me decide what my test answers will be,' well, I probably wouldn't have made it through AP U.S. History."
  • Legally, Much Depends on What Bing Does With Google Data, reports PaidContent's Joe Mullin. He notes that the data in Google's search results isn't protected by copyright but the ordering of its search results is:
If Microsoft is whole-hog swiping Google's results to solve a particular problem that it can't solve--misspelled search queries, for example--it could get in real trouble ... But if Microsoft is just using the Google search results as it says it is--as one of more than 1,000 different variables that improve its algorithm--it's likely in the clear.
  • A Rising Tide Lift All Boats, reasons Gizmodo's Kat Hannaford: "You could argue that if it's not illegal, what's the big issue? If it helps Bing become a better search engine--and maybe even spur on Google to crank the gears a little faster--then surely we should just be happy that everyone's receiving improved search results, no matter what engine they use?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.