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Posted on Harvard Business Review: February 3, 2011 2:47 PM
Google has sparked a media uproar by alleging that Bing "copies" Google results. Bing unequivocally denied it. What's going on?
Google argues that Microsoft "copied" its results. I don't think that's the best summary of these facts. If Google had merely listed these pages in its search results, Microsoft never would have noticed. What Microsoft actually did is observe user behavior. Microsoft received user permission for these observations. And information about users' click patterns is users' information—not Google's.
Indeed, there's no sense in which Microsoft singled out Google for this data collection. If Google had run the same experiment but had told its staff to run their gibberish searches on AOL Search or Ask.com, Microsoft's data collection systems still would have noticed. Microsoft didn't single out Google in any way.
Of course the reality is that Google's high market share means Google gets far more searches than any other search engine. And Google's popularity gives it a real advantage: For an obscure search term that gets 100 searches per month at Google, Bing might get just five or 10. Also, for more popular terms, Google can slice its data into smaller groups—which results are most useful to people from Boston versus New York, which results are best during the day versus at night, and so forth. So Google is far better equipped to figure out what results users favor and to tailor its listings accordingly. Meanwhile, Microsoft needs additional data, such as Toolbar and Related Sites data, to attempt to improve its results in a similar way.
Google itself previously praised and endorsed the use of Toolbar and similar data to improve search results. In a post at WebmasterWorld, Google's Matt Cutts (then posting under the pseudonym GoogleGuy) wrote as follows:
"It's my personal, unofficial belief that using toolbar data in the future to augment our crawl is not only a good idea, but specifically allowed by the original policies we posted."
"A good idea," Matt said, when contemplating Google using this method—but now that Microsoft uses this very approach, suddenly Google argues it's improper.
There's also a striking irony to Google's complaints about copying. After all, before acquiring YouTube, Google staff called YouTube a "rogue enabler of content theft"; YouTube founder Jawed Karim uploaded infringing material himself; YouTube staff felt they'd lose 80% of traffic if they removed obviously infringing clips. Then there's book-scanning, where Google copied hundreds of thousands of books without authors' permission. And news, image search, spam blogs, typosquatting, and Google's myriad uses of others' intellectual property. It's great to see Google recognize the importance of respecting others' investments in collecting and analyzing data. But Google has much to do to put its own house in order in this regard.
Benjamin Edelman is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. He counts Microsoft among his consulting clients (though on matters unrelated to issues discussed here).
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