Microsoft Spying on Internet Explorer Users Google Searches in Order to Enhance Bing Search Engine

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Has Microsoft been spying on the Google searches of Internet Explorer users in order to use the data to enhance their own Microsoft Bing search engine, to make it more competitive with Google? According to Google, who claims to have caught MS watching their own IE users, tapping their Google searches and using the information gleaned from those searches to make their Bing searches more accurate.

According to Google, by manually seeding their Google search results with false data, they have caught Microsoft copying their data. They compare it to someone cheating on an exam by looking over someone else’s shoulder.


Says Google Fellow Amit Singhai, “I’ve spent my career in pursuit of a good search engine. I’ve got no problem with a competitor developing an innovative algorithm. But copying is not innovation, in my book.”

The way that the sting worked is that Google created false entries for nonsense words, with the search results for those nonsense words ‘finding’ certain existing websites. The top entries in those searches – again, nonsense searches that really had nothing to do with those top entries – magically started appearing as the top entries in Bing searches for those nonsense words as well.

Danny Sullivan first broke the story over on Search Engine Land. According to Sullivan, while researching his article, he received an email from Microsoft’s Director of Bing, Stefan Weitz, stating that “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 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.”

[Emphasis ours.]

Sounds like double-speak for “We certainly won’t confirm it, but we can’t deny it either.” Except, it seems that they do admit it in the sentence that we’ve bolded.

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Microsoft Spying on Internet Explorer Users Google Searches in Order to Enhance Bing Search Engine

In fact, earlier today, Harry Shum, a VP over at Bing, more openly acknowledged that they were using Google search data gleaned from their users, and accusing Google of a “spy-novelesque stunt” to throw the search rankings.

“We use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm. A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers, who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users,” said Shum, adding “To be clear, we learn from all of our customers. What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.”

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Shum also said at today’s “Future of Search” event hosted by Bing, that “It’s not like we actually copy anything. It’s really about, we learn from the customers – who actually willingly opt-in to share their data with us. Just like Google does. Just like other search engines do. It’s where we actually learn from the customers, from what kind of queries they type – we have query logs – what kind of clicks they do. And let’s not forget that the reason search worked, the reason web worked, is really about collective intelligence.”

Of course, none of this is illegal, if their customers truly did opt-in to sharing their search data. But it certainly is a look into just how important it is to the big search engines to be able to have access to your data.

Regardless of how useful search engines are, don’t for a minute imagine that Google and Microsoft (and Yahoo) offer search engines for your convenience. Search is not an altruistic service for them – it’s a way of gathering data that you are providing to them. Every time you do a Google, Bing or Yahoo search, you are not really using a service – you are participating in an enormous collection of data about your habits, so that the sponsoring company can use that data to sell that collective data to third parties, sell your eyeballs to advertisers, or sell products and services directly to you. The search results are just the payoff they give you to keep you providing that data.

[A tip of the hat to Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land for his excellent coverage in breaking this story!]

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Microsoft Spying on Internet Explorer Users Google Searches in Order to Enhance Bing Search Engine

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