We branded it the Great Search Engine War of 2011, when Google launched an all-out attack on Microsoft’s Bing, accusing its arch-nemesis of copying search results. After several months, however, it’s unclear what impact the war has had on Microsoft. Has Bing been planning a response?
“Well, we have hired a team of Vatican assassins,” jokes Stefan Weitz, director of Bing’s search engine. “We had Charlie Sheen call his buddies.”
For Weitz, who has witnessed the war first-hand, Google’s accusations amounted to nothing more than a PR move, which he found both impressive and disappointing. “It was crap,” Weitz says. “I’ll give them ten points for PR. That being said, I was disappointed with [lead Google search engineers] Amit [Singhal] and Matt [Cutts]–both of whom I know very well–and how intellectually dishonest it was.”
In particular, Weitz took issue with how Google handled its sting operation. Google had suspected Microsoft was collecting data from Google usage on Internet Explorer, and using that data to power Bing results. In order to test this theory, Google set up about 100 “synthetic” searches–fake queries that would be very unlikely to return any results, including random letter-strings such as “hiybbprqag” and “mbzrxpgjys.” After manually planting irrelevant results for the synthetic searches, a team of Googlers began searching for the odd terms on Google via Internet Explorer to see whether the results might eventually show up on Bing as well.
Out of 100 tests, Google managed to produce similar results on Bing for about 7 to 9 of its synthetic searches.
“Their test was crap,” Weitz says. “Only seven fired out of 100 tests? It’s absolutely nuts. In any other research–research which Amit and Matt both came from–you would discard such results as erroneous. They know better.”
Since the scandal broke several months ago, Bing-powered searches have ironically increased by 4%–any press is good press, right?–and now account for roughly 28% of the U.S. market. Google, on the other hand, has seen searches decline 2% since January, according to Experian Hitwise, although it still remains by far the dominant player with a 66% market share.
“I yelled at Matt when I saw him at SXSW, as we always do after a few beers, but it was one of those things where it was like, guys, seriously? I mean, good for your PR, bravo,” Weitz says, chuckling and clapping. “But don’t get too excited about this.”
Weitz (pictured, right) understands the beauty of Google’s accusations: incredibly easy to convey on the surface, while difficult to explain in detail. The initial news made for eye-grabbing headlines (Bing is copying Google’s search results!); the longer explanation–involving clickstream data, Internet Explorer, the Bing toolbar–was less seductive and lost in translation.
“The average consumer probably still thinks Bing copies,” Weitz says. “When it first happened, my mom called me, and she was very upset with me. She was like, ‘I just heard from your father that you are copying Google. I want you to know that I do not approve!’ I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m not copying Google!'”
Weitz calls Google’s actions a “great deflection move on their part” to distract from growing criticism that the company’s results are “getting worse and worse.” However, Weitz says he understands the game Google is trying to play.
“We took our lumps with this one–we probably should’ve handled it better than we did. But I know how this goes,” he says, referencing Microsoft’s dominant position with Windows and Internet Explorer. “When you’re the biggest target, you get the most crap.”