On Wednesday, Microsoft began running a national ad campaign to warn users to avoid being “Scroogled” by Google search results that have been influenced by paid placement.
Specifically, Microsoft’s campaign attempts to portray Google as basing its Google Shopper search results on the amount of money each vendor has paid, rather than the accuracy of the results themselves. More practically, Microsoft claims that popular online retailer Amazon opted out of Google’s search, but that Bing users will be able to compare prices against the Web’s largest e-tailer.
Who Is More Unbiased?
With the new campaign, Microsoft is taking the side of the angels, using semi-patriotic language reminiscent of the recent presidential election.
“Today, Bing renews its commitment to the old rules – to honoring our side of the bargain with shoppers by delivering better, more objectively ranked search results,” Mike Nichols, a corporate vice president and chief marketing officer for Bing, said in a blog post. “We won’t let who pays us for ads or other services affect what you see in your search results. Search results are one thing; ads are another. We won’t switch to pay-to-rank to allow some shopping search results to appear higher than others. We don’t believe shoppers should risk paying more, simply because they started their search at Google.”
Hoist By Its Own Petard?
Now that the program is in place, Microsoft is positioning its own results as complete and unbiased, and a better alternative for shoppers this Holiday season. And the company is going full bore: not only has it launched a “Scroogled” Web site that invites shoppers to submit their examples of being “Scroogled,” but it has peppered the site with links to the Google founders’ letter, where Larry Page and Sergey Brin claimed, in the famous “Don’t Be Evil” paragraph, that their company’s search results “are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.”
Damningly, Microsoft is also using Google’s more recent words against it, citing the language used by Google in announcing an update to Google Shopping announced this spring:
“Ranking in Google Shopping, when the full transition is complete this fall, will be based on a combination of relevance and bid price - just like Product Listing Ads today,” Sameer Samat, vice president of product management for Google Shopping, wrote in a blog post. “This will give merchants greater control over where their products appear on Google Shopping.”
While Microsoft’s campaign must be seen as a classic example of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) tactics it has honed over the decades to fight everything from Netscape to Linus, the company suggests that shoppers won’t be best served by the pay-to-play rankings. Like Amazon, merchants may choose not to pay to rank results preferentially for low-margin products, which could affect their supply, and specialty merchants might be excluded as well. Microsoft also called out Google’s search results, which claim to be defined by “relevance”.
If one clicks on a particular product, Google opens a separate page listing stores and prices, with a box that encompasses all of the results and defines them as “sponsored.” “Google is compensated by these merchants,” an informational blurb reads, but only if the user clicks on the “i.” But on the main results page, Google hides the pay-to-play results under the link, 'Why these results?" - a difference in language Google couldn't explain.
“While good deals and wide selection take a back seat on Google Shopping thanks to its policies, the way to look at the deception taking place is how Google hides its disclosure policy to customers behind a little link on the side of the page and offers a vague explanation of the factors that may influence ranking, including payment,” Stefan Weitz, the senior director at Bing, said in an emailed statement to ReadWrite.
For its part, Google wouldn't specifically address the pay-to-play charge, but characterized Google Shopper as a useful tool.
“Google Shopping makes it easier for shoppers to quickly find what they’re looking for, compare different products and connect with merchants to make a purchase," a Google respresentative said in an emailed statement. "With new 360-degree, interactive product images, social shopping lists and a fast growing inventory of more than a billion products worldwide, Google is a great resource for shoppers to find what they need, at great prices for their loved ones this holiday season.”
Does Pay-to-Play Affect Search Results?
The problem in comparing the two search engine results is that the results are rarely, if ever, clear-cut. In one test ReadWrite conducted (without input from Google) Microsoft’s results seemed less relevant. But on others, an observer could conclude that a vendor paid for placement - but might also believe that the search engine simply returned a more relevant result.
Take a search for “telescope,” for example. On Google, the first five results are for Celestron telescopes, then the Tasco Specialty 49TN. On Bing, the first two results are for Celestron products, then the Tasco 49TN, the BARSKA StarWatcher, and then two more Celestron scopes. The searches are different, but is one better than the other?
The answer might lie in comparing the searches that you (or an acknowledged expert) might make himself. When shopping for the “best smartphone” on Google, Google ranked the Sony Xperia S as the most relevant result - an odd choice, given that few U.S. reviewers had actually reviewed it, let alone given it top marks. (CNET gave it three stars, though PhoneArena’s review said that Sony “hit the nail on the head”). Google’s next choices were the Samsung Captivate Glide (ranked 3 out of 5 or 4 out of 5 in most reviews, and then the Samsung Galaxy S II, the older version of the well-reviewed Galaxy S III now on store shelves. Google did not place an Apple product in the first page (18 products) of results.
Bing, for its part, chose the Samsung Infuse 4G, released in May 2011, the superb Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX, and the Sony Ericsson Xperia arc as its top three choices. At fifth, it placed the Apple iPhone 4s. At sixth, however, Bing chose the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, a phone that was released in 2009 and available from just one store. The T-Mobile G2, one of the very first Android smartphones, is seventh, one place above the Microsoft-powered Nokia Lumia 920. Wow.
(Interestingly, if one searches for "smartphone" - not "best smartphone" - on both sites, Bing's results bury the iPhone 4S farther down, bump up the Lumia, and include the original, much-despised BlackBerry Storm. Google places the Apple iPhone 4S and the iPhone 4 in the first three results.)
A more significant problem is the exclusion of Amazon in search results. This kind of thing happen all the time; search flight listings on Kayak.com and you’ll quickly find that the results exclude Southwest Airlines. But Kayak at least lists the flight times, even as it excludes the prices; on Google, you’ll need to remember to check Amazon to see if the company even sells the item. That’s a problem.
“So for this holiday season, we just want to make sure shoppers know that when searching for that perfect gift for Cousin Harry on Google Shopping, the results they are seeing are partially optimized to benefit Google’s revenue, not a shopper’s pocketbook,” Microsoft's Nichols wrote. “If this practice has you concerned, then please try Bing for an honest search.”
The conclusion? Yes, more Microsoft FUD. But this time it just might be justified.