02/01/2011 10:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Bing Copying Google? Microsoft Denies Rival's Allegations

Is Bing copying Google's search results?

According to Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, Google claims to have evidence that Microsoft is modifying its search engine results to reflect how users search via Google. Sullivan writes that Google ran a "sting operation," which exposed Bing's allegedly shady policies.

"It's cheating," Amit Singhal, who oversees Google's ranking algorithm, told Sullivan. "[I]t's like running a marathon and carrying someone else on your back, who jumps off just before the finish line."

In May 2010, Google engineers noticed that, when entering "unusual misspellings" as search terms, Bing's top search result was sometimes identical to Google's spelling correction suggestion. According to Sullivan,

It's a point of pride to Google that it believes it has the best spelling correction system of any search engine. Google even claims that it can even correct misspellings that have never been searched on before. Engineers on the spelling correction team closely watch to see if they're besting competitors on unusual terms. [...] So when misspellings on Bing for unusual words [...] started generating the same results as with Google, red flags went up among the engineers.

In October 2010, Googlers found that the "overlap" between Bing and Google search results was slightly higher than usual. Google began to suspect that Bing was collecting Google data from searches performed in Internet Explorer, either via the browser's "Suggested Sites" feature or the browser's Bing toolbar.

Thus, Google began its Bing Sting. Sullivan writes that, Google created 100 phony searches, which regular users would be highly unlikely to query. For each of these "synthetic" search terms, Googlers also created a "honeypot" page. "There was nothing that made [these honeypot pages] naturally relevant for these searches," writes Sullivan. "If they started to appeared [sic] at Bing after Google, that would mean that Bing took Google's bait and copied its results."

In December, 20 Google engineers began testing the synthetic queries in Internet Explorer, with Suggested Sites and the Bing toolbar turned on. After two weeks, between seven and nine of the honeypot pages had appeared in Bing's search results when the "synthetic" terms were queried in Bing. It was a small percentage, but it was enough to convince Google that Bing was copying.

Sullivan notes that Google denied ever having used its proprietary toolbar and Chrome Browser to similarly improve its page rankings. He also points out that Bing isn't violating any laws by monitoring customers' Google searches via Internet Explorer. Nevertheless, Google is not thrilled with Bing.

Bing director Stefan Weitz issued a rather vague statement regarding Google's allegations:

As you might imagine, we use multiple signals and approaches when we think about ranking, but like the rest of the players in this industry, we're not going to go deep and detailed in how we do it. Clearly, the overarching goal is to do a better job determining the intent of the search, so we can guess at the best and most relevant answer to a given query.

Opt-in programs like the [Bing] toolbar help us with clickstream data, one of many input signals we and other search engines use to help rank sites. This "Google experiment" seems like a hack to confuse and manipulate some of these signals.

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley pressed a Microsoft representative for a firmer answer. "We do not copy Google's results," was the reply.

On Tuesday morning, the Microsoft Blog featured a response from the Bing Team. The post, titled
"Thoughts on search quality," explained that opt-in customer data is only a "small piece" of Bing's ranking algorithm. The Bing Team went on to write the following:

[Search Engine Land's article] doesn't accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.

The history of the web and the improvement of a broad array of consumer and business experiences is actually the story of collective intelligence, from sharing HTML documents to hypertext links to click data and beyond. Many companies across the Internet use this collective intelligence to make their products better every day.

[...] We never set out to build another version of an existing search engine. We believe search needs to do more for customers. This is the guiding principle in how we approach our work each day."