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Google Runs “Bing Sting” And Calls Out Microsoft For Cheating

The big news in the technology world today centered on a growing dispute between Google and Microsoft.  At issue is the veracity of search results generated by Microsoft’s search engine, Bing.  The controversy surfaced in the wider blogosphere when an article published by Search Engine Land – an online journal devoted to, you guessed it, search engines – broke the story.  This story has appeal for the techy, word-smith and mystery writer all at the same time.

According to the Search Engine Land article, Google ran a sting operation – a “Bing sting” – when several indicators gave Google officials reason to believe that Bing was, essentially, copying Google’s search engine results.  For example, back in May, Google began noticing that Bing was returning increasingly similar search results to Google’s own engine.  Though not conclusive, the suspicious search similarities were magnified when Bing returned amazingly similar search results when queried with the mis-spelling of an extremely unusual word – “tarsorrhaphy.”

Apart from being an extremely rare surgical procedure on eyelids, tarsorrhaphy is also a word that, in the summer of 2010, Google’s spell checkers were watching.  Yes, folks, Google employs spell checkers who proudly design and monitor the technology allowing Google to auto-correct our mis-spelled search queries and return search results based on the correct spellings.  It is, without question, marvelous technology, which we have all seen in action.  For the word tarsorrhaphy, which had a queried mis-spelling of “torsoraphy,” Google’s spell-checker returned this result:

 

Image courtesy of Official Google Blog

 

According to an explanation written in today’s Official Google Blog, at the time this search was queried, Bing had no search results to offer for the mis-spelling.  However, later in the summer, Bing returned results on the mis-spelling that looked like this:

 

 

So what?  Here’s the significance.  Google’s search engine searches for the correct spelling of the word, even though it was incorrectly spelled, and returns a Wikipedia page as the number one result out of 22,000 pages.  Bing’s subsequent results do not correct the mis-spelling but, somehow, still return the same Wikipedia page in the number one spot – one of only 4 pages total that it found.

Later in 2010, an already suspecting Google, began to notice further similarities between its search results and those generated by Bing.  Google devised a sting to prove its suspicions.  In simplest terms, certain web pages – known in the computing world as “honeypot” traps – would be manually forced by Google to appear in response to near-impossible search queries.  Prior to being forced, these honeypots would not have resulted from the search, and indeed, were not even good search results to begin with.

The image below depicts one such “honeypot” trap:

 

Image courtesy of Official Google Blog

A small group of Google employees was then instructed to run the bogus queries at home on laptops using Internet Explorer 8.  Because these “honeypots” did not appear in search results prior to the sting, their appearance in Bing search results after being forced to appear in Google search results would prove – at least to Google – that Bing copied Google’s search results.

 

As reported in the Official Google Blog, “within a couple weeks of starting this experiment, our inserted results started appearing in Bing.”  Using the same meaningless search term from the image above, notice how Bing returned the same bogus search result within weeks of the sting operation:

According to Google, the plagiarism did not stop with this one search result.  During the period immediately following the sting operation, Google noticed that Bing produced more and more results matching the “honeypot trap” pages.  A more complete list of the unusual search terms that were devised and the ridiculous, and even amusing, results they generated can be found in the article discussing the incident at the Official Google Blog.

What does Microsoft have to say about Google’s accusations?  Microsoft’s vague and rather self-serving, corporate-speak response hardly denies Google’s accusations:

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.

Why not “go deep” into it?  Maybe, it would mean admitting that Bing is a cheat?  Or, maybe, Microsoft figures that they are already deep enough as it is.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how long these two giants slug it out over Google’s “Bing Sting.”

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