Companies & Industries

In Accusing Microsoft, Google Doth Protest Too Much


Harvard blogger Benjamin Edelman believes the folks developing Bing did little more than observe user behavior—hardly a sin

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?

When a user runs certain features—parts of Bing Toolbar or IE8's Related Sites—the user's browser sends Microsoft information about the pages the user views. Knowing about this feature, Google staged a setup: For gibberish search terms Google made up, Google caused its search engine to serve up random pages Google selected arbitrarily. Then Google told 20 of its staff to run Google searches for these gibberish terms, and to click the artificial results Google had inserted. Participating staff did this on computers running Bing Toolbar and IE Related Sites, so their click patterns were sent to Microsoft—just as Microsoft's privacy policy and other disclosures said they would be. And then Microsoft used this data to improve its search results—to present in Bing results the links these users seemed to favor, again just as Microsoft said it would.

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.

Google now disavows this tactic, telling Danny Sullivan "we've never used those URLs or data [from Toolbar] to put any results on Google's results page." But the plain language of the Google Toolbar Privacy Policy still allows Google to collect this information, and specifically says Google may use Toolbar data "to improve ... Google Services" such as search. Google retains the right to do exactly what Microsoft did: Pot, kettle, black.

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).

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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