If you've missed it, there's practically been a spy novel written over the past couple of days about Bing copying Google's search results. The whole thing started with a novella by Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, which related the tale of Google's honeypot trap to catch Bing in the act of copying its search results. Ever since, the two companies have been battling it out in public, accusing and denying, in blog posts, tweets and more blog posts, but one question still remains - what now?
Even if the move wasn't intentional on Microsoft's end, the end result is the same - Bing search results that more closely mirror Google's search results. One ex-Googler has some thoughts on how this can change how Google approaches search, which he shared earlier today on Q&A site Quora.
The Short Version
First, if you're in the mood for a great but long read, take a look at Danny Sullivan's story that broke open the whole debacle. There's mystery, there's intrigue and there are diagrams. The long and short of it is that Google started making up "words" that no one would actually search for - "hiybbprqag" for example - and then linking them to unrelated results. The gotcha moment came when Google engineers searched Bing for those "words" (after weeks of using Internet Explorer, searching for those "words") and came up with those same results.
In other words, Bing was coming up with search results for something that only Googlers were searching for using Google on Internet Explorer. (If you've seen The Departed, it's very much like the envelope that outs the rat.) Internet Explorer and the Bing toolbar had been collecting anonymous click data and, according to Bing, this data was one of more than "1,000 different signals and features in [its] ranking algorithm." So, it wasn't that Bing was directly copying results, said Microsoft, but that it was taking click data into account. Ever since Sullivan's post, the two companies have been going at it - and that's the very short version of it all.
Edmond Lau, formerly a part of the search team at Google, says that "the result of this discovery will be to diminish Google's incentive to innovate in vanilla search quality ranking and to increase its efforts on other differentiating search features."
Lau points out that, unless Google has a legal argument against Bing's usage of click data, Microsoft will likely continue with the practice. Over time, he posits, Bings search results will likely move closer to Google's, taking away a key incentive on Google's end to innovate its search product.
"Any new innovations in ranking by Google could in theory quickly become assimilated into Bing's search results, reducing Google's incentive to innovate in the ranking space," writes Lau. "Therefore, in order to maintain its competitive edge, Google will need to both try to reduce Bing's ability to copy its results, and it will need to significantly increase its efforts on other important areas in the search experience outside of ranking."
What's Google's Next Move?
Lau suggests that Google has two possible moves at this point. First, it can give Bing toolbar users worse results by "[dropping] a misspelling here or an optimization there," thereby giving undermining Bing's efforts and giving it only "medium-quality" results to copy. The second option, he says, is for Google to "focus more on non-ranking related improvements," such as snippet quality, metadata extraction like IMDB data at the top of search results, query refinements such as localized results and search suggestions, more relevant ads and a better integration of universal search. In other words, Google can focus on all the neat information and context that surrounds mere search results.
"Not all is lost for Google even though Bing may be hijacking its results," writes Lau. "Months after the summer of 2010, when Google figured that Bing had copied some of its results for the misspelled query [torsoraphy], it's clear that Google still understands the web much better than Bing does. [...]Bing's top result doesn't have the spell-corrected query highlighted because Bing still isn't able to connect the dots between the misspelled and corrected query. I'm not too worried for Google web search."
What do you think? Would Google lower the quality on some search results just to keep Bing from copying it? From what we've read, information is not collected by the Bing toolbar alone, but by Internet Explorer use, as well, which makes up a majority of Web browsers worldwide. It seems like lowering the quality of your search results to a majority of users worldwide simply to stop someone from copying your answers would be counterproductive. Instead, we're willing to bet that Google continues, as it has, to focus on enhancing all of these "non-ranking related improvements." Google is continually pushing to make search results more customized to the individual user, according to previous search results, social context, location, and more. Is this the type of thing that could be simply copied by click data? We're not so sure.