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Is Microsoft Stealing Google’s Search Results?

In last week’s blog post, we talked about the merger between Yahoo! and Microsoft’s Bing, and the possible ramifications of having only two major players in the search industry.

But in fact the search field might be even narrower than that: not only are Yahoo! and Bing now using the same search algorithm to get their results, but that algorithm might be based, at least in part, on Google results – because Bing may be stealing Google’s results.

How, you might ask, with the millions of searches made every day, could Google possibly know if Bing is stealing its results? After all, if a website is well-optimized for search engine placement, won’t it do well on both engines?

Yes, and no. Google and Bing have different proprietary algorithms and usually return different results. This is why, if you want your business to dominate the organic search results, it’s important to work with experts who know both engines well.

When there’s a lot of overlap between search results in the two engines, it suggests that something fishy is going on.

In this case, Google discovered the alleged plagiarism by looking at a search query that was both unusual and misspelled. In the summer of 2010, Google programmers happened to be looking at the search results for “torsorophy”, which is a misspelling of “tarsorrhaphy”. Google’s search program had spotted the misspelling and returned the relevant results for the correctly spelled word. As part of their analysis of how well Google had handled the challenging search term, Google’s programmers checked to see how Bing would handle the query. (We have a feeling that there’s a lot of such checking going on between the two major search engines.) The Google team discovered that Bing did not recognize or fix the misspelling, but nevertheless returned the same first-place result as Google had for the correctly spelled word. This raised the suspicion that somehow Bing was tracking Google’s results – because if Bing had not recognized the misspelling, how could it have otherwise known that “torsorophy” and “tarsorrhaphy” were the same?

Another red flag went up for Google’s team in October 2010, when Google’s metrics showed that Bing’s top-ten results, and particularly its first place results, were becoming increasingly identical to Google’s. Though there were still significant differences across many search queries, the percentage of overlap was definitely on the rise, making Bing’s results “more Google-like”.

To confirm their suspicions, Google programmers created one hundred fake queries for gibberish terms – something actual searchers would never type in, like “hiybbprqag” – and, overriding its normal algorithm, manually assigned particular arbitrary results to those nonsense queries. Within a couple of weeks, Bing was returning Google’s arbitrarily-assigned results for some of those gibberish queries.

Google brought their charges public in February 2011, claiming that Microsoft was copying its search algorithm. Microsoft responded with a statement that wasn’t exactly a denial, saying that it uses “multiple signals and approaches” to create its results, including “clickstream data” from the Bing toolbar.

In other words – as Google alleges – Bing might be monitoring and recording people’s Google searches, and then incorporating that data into its own results.

There’s definitely something going on here. Next week, we’ll talk about what’s happening and what it means for businesses that rely on organic search to generate leads.

P.S. Out of curiosity, we looked it up: “tarsorrhaphy” is a rare procedure in which the eyelids are partially sewn together to narrow the opening. This is done to protect the eye while healing or to counteract the side effects from disease. Ouch.

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