Microsoft uses browser toolbars to monitor what users search for and click on at Google, and then uses this information to improve Bing’s search results.
Apparently, Google has just discovered this — even though Microsoft has been talking about it for more than a year.
This morning, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land explained that Google became suspicious last May that Bing was “copying” its search results. So the company set up a test in December: it took made-up or obscure words like hiybbprqag and manually tweaked the search algorithm so that a randomly selected Web page would show up near at top of Google search results for those words. (Google claims it doesn’t normally weigh individual pages in search results this way, and says it discontinued the manual tweaking capability as soon as the experiment was done.)
Then it got a bunch of Google engineers to run searches using Internet Explorer with the Bing Toolbar installed. Sure enough, after a couple weeks those same pages began showing up in Bing results for the same words.
Google concluded that Bing is actually watching user behaviour on its site and changing its search results accordingly. Shocking news, right?
Not really — Microsoft has been talking about this practice for several years.
Microsoft vice president Satya Nadella took over development for Microsoft’s search engine in late 2007. When Microsoft rebranded it as Bing in May 2009 — and make no mistake, Bing was not new, it was a rebrand of a search initiative that started back in 2003 — Nadella told me that most Bing results were on par with Google’s.
One way that Microsoft made sure of this was by collecting data from users via the MSN Toolbar and Windows Live Toolbar (the Bing Toolbar came later) as early as 2007. Among other things, the toolbars collected information about search queries and how long users spent at particular results pages. And not just from Microsoft’s own search engine, but also from user activities at Google and Yahoo (which was still independent at that time).
Directions on Microsoft published a report containing this information in July 2009.
Bing director Stefan Weitz confirmed on the phone this morning that Microsoft has shared this information with other press and analysts as well. It’s not a secret.
As Sullivan notes in his article, Microsoft asks users if they want to share data via the Bing Toolbar to “help improve the online experience.” The boxes are checked by default, and the terms clearly explain what information Microsoft might be collecting and how they might use it.
To be clear, this isn’t the ONLY factor that goes into Bing’s rankings. Indeed, most Bing search results pages are quite different from Google’s. But it’s definitely ONE factor that Bing uses.
So going back to Google’s “experiment,” if users with the Bing toolbar are suddenly clicking on a page for a particular search result, Microsoft is absolutely going to notice, and those results are going to get fed into the Bing algorithm.
Is this ethical? Google doesn’t think so — the company invests a ton in R&D for its search algorithm, and doesn’t like to see Bing cribbing from it. But from Microsoft’s perspective, it’s simply improving the user experience.
The real question is do users care? Probably not — they just want the best results.
Here’s Microsoft’s official statement on the matter: “We use multiple signals and approaches in ranking search results. The overarching goal is to do a better job determining the intent of the search so we can provide the 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.”