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Archive for February, 2011

Competitive Intelligence & Culture

February 21, 2011 7 comments

My last few posts have gone off my topic – and the main raison d’être of this blog – competitive intelligence and finding business information. I’m tempted to write about the turmoil currently going on in the Middle East – but echo the reply that Zhou Enlai of China is reputed to have told President Nixon when asked for his views on the 1789 French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell”.

At the same time, any attempt to understand what is happening has to take into account the cultures involved. Too many pundits ignore culture as an influencing factor and expectations that the Middle East will suddenly adopt Western democratic ideals strike me as unlikely. That is not to say that some form of democratic rule won’t appear – it just won’t be the same as found in the US, UK, France, Australia and other countries dominated by Western Christian traditions.

Understanding culture is also important for competitive intelligence professionals – yet is often ignored. Several years ago I was speaking to a US based consultant – and asked how he went about doing cross-border research. His response was that all research was done in-house. I then asked how he coped with different languages and time-zones. He replied that he used people fluent in the relevant languages working in shifts. At no point did he accept that different countries expect differing approaches – and that his approach may not always give the best results and so be value for money (or even safe) for his clients.

A few months ago, I led a workshop on competitive intelligence in Indonesia. On the second day I was asked a question that I’d never been asked previously. I was asked when I was going to teach the attendees “unethical” ways for gathering competitor intelligence. The reason given was that they knew that their competitors did not follow ethical approaches to gathering competitive intelligence and they also wanted to learn such techniques. They felt that if they only used the standard ethical approaches used in America and the UK then they would be at a disadvantage. Unfortunately they were probably correct.

Of course the ideal situation is to be ethical in all that you do – but if your competitors don’t follow US/UK ethical guidelines it can cause a problem for you, if you do. Especially if ethical norms are different in the country concerned. I handled the query by spending some time talking about counter-intelligence and what to watch out for – mentioning the sorts of things that could be done against them, and how to detect them. This way, hopefully, my questionner will realise that they can stop their competitors gathering material unethically – and that they can do things the right way themselves. (Of course they could turn what I told them round – and use the same approaches back. That is their decision and at least they’ll know the risk to their reputation if caught).

The point about the question however was that it illustrated a cultural difference. The standard SCIP code of ethics is essentially an American construct and relates to US business. I personally believe it is correct – but that may be because my cultural background as a Brit is not too dissimilar to American business norms.

As another example, I have had to spell out to a non-European client of mine that I am not willing to recruit “a company insider” to provide a constant flow of information. He kept asking me to try and locate an employee who I can periodically pay for the latest information on his employer. My client found it very difficult to understand why this is unethical – as he views it as normal that employees will want to supplement their income by sharing information. When I pointed out that this was industrial espionage he disagreed – as I was not hacking, or using bugs but just speaking to somebody who is willing to provide information on a regular basis, and rewarding this person for their time and effort.

Then there was the client who failed to understand why I preferred to interview UK contacts via the telephone rather than arrange meetings. In his culture, unlike in the UK,  face-to-face contact is crucial for any form of business relationship or transaction. The telephone is used to set up meetings – and the idea that you could ever do business over the telephone instead of in person seemed strange.

Japanese vs. European greetingsThese are just some of the ways that cultural differences can impact competitive intelligence practice. There are more. Imagine that you want to find out whether a particular product is about to launch. Within the UK, you may call up a contact and simply ask whether the product will launch within 3 months. You will get a yes or no answer. However doing the same research in Japan needs a different approach, as the standard response in Japan will be yes even if the answer is no. Saying no would be bad form – and result in a loss of face. A better approach would be to provide an alternative e.g. “when will the new product launch – less than 3 months or more than 3 months”. This way, you have to get an answer – it is not a yes/no type question.

These are extremes. However even within Europe there are differences – traditionally in Germany you would not use a first name to speak to a contact, while within the UK that is generally acceptable. Behaving in the wrong way can put a distance between you and your interviewee – so it is important to know the cultural impact of your approach.

Unfortunately not much appears to have been written on the impact of culture on competitive intelligence practice – and this is a topic ripe for research.

Google versus Bing – a competitive intelligence case study

February 2, 2011 7 comments

Search experts regularly emphasise that to get the best search results it is important to use more than one search engine. The main reason for this is that each search engine uses a different relevancy ranking leading to different search results pages. Using Google will give a results page with the sites that Google thinks are the most relevant for the search query, while using Bing is supposed to give a results page where the top hits are based on a different relevancy ranking. This alternative may give better results for some searches and so a comprehensive search needs to use multiple search engines.

You may have noticed that I highlighted the word supposed when mentioning Bing. This is because it appears that Bing is cheating, and is using some of Google’s results in their search lists. Plagiarising Google’s results may be Bing’s way of saying that Google is better. However it leaves a bad taste as it means that one of the main reasons for using Microsoft’s search engine can be questioned, i.e. that the results are different and that all are generated independently, using different relevancy rankings.

Bing is Microsoft’s third attempt at a market-leading, Google bashing, search engine – replacing Live.com which in turn had replaced MSN Search. Bing has been successful and is truly a good alternative to Google. It is the default search engine on Facebook (i.e. when doing a search on Facebook, you get Bing results) and is also used to supply results to other search utilities – most notably Yahoo! From a marketing perspective, however, it appears that the adage “differentiate or die” hasn’t been fully understood by Bing. Companies that fail to fully differentiate their product offerings from competitors are likely to fail.

The story that Bing was copying Google’s results dates back to Summer 2010, when Google noticed an odd similarity to a highly specialist search on the two search engines. This, in itself wouldn’t be a problem. You’d expect similar results for very targeted search terms – the main difference will be the sort order. However in this case, the same top results were being generated when spelling mistakes were used as the search term. Google started to look more closely – and found that this wasn’t just a one-off. However to prove that Bing was stealing Google’s results needed more than just observation. To test the hypothesis, Google set up 100 dummy and nonsense queries that led to web-sites that had no relationship at all to the query. They then gave their testers laptops with a new Windows install – running Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 and with the Bing Toolbar installed. The install process included the “Suggested Sites” feature of Internet Explorer and the toolbar’s default options.

Within a few weeks, Bing started returning the fake results for the same Google searches. For example, a search for hiybbprqag gave the seating plan for a Los Angeles theatre, while delhipublicschool40 chdjob returned a Ohio Credit Union as the top result. This proved that the source for the results was not Bing’s own search algorithm but that the result had been taken from Google.

What was happening was that the searches and search results on Google were being passed back to Microsoft – via some feature of Internet Explorer 8, Windows or the Bing Toolbar.

As Google states in their Blog article on the discovery (which is illustrated with screenshots of the findings):

At Google we strongly believe in innovation and are proud of our search quality. We’ve invested thousands of person-years into developing our search algorithms because we want our users to get the right answer every time they search, and that’s not easy. We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor. So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we’d like for this practice to stop.

Interestingly, Bing doesn’t even try to deny the claim – perhaps because they realise that they were caught red-handed. Instead they have tried to justify using the data on customer computers as a way of improving search experiences – even when the searching was being done via a competitor.  In fact, Harry Shum, a Bing VP, believes that this is actually good practice, stating in Bing’s response to a blog post by Danny Sullivan that exposed the practice:

“We have been very clear. We use the customer data to help improve the search experience…. We all learn from our collective customers, and we all should.”

It is well known that companies collect data on customer usage of their own web-sites – that is one purpose of cookies generated when visiting a site. It is less well known that some companies also collect data on what users do on other sites (which is why Yauba boasts about its privacy credentials). I’m sure that the majority of users of the Bing toolbar and other Internet Explorer and Windows features that seem to pass back data to Microsoft would be less happy if they knew how much data was collected and where from. Microsoft has been collecting such data for several years, but ethically the practice is highly questionable, even though Microsoft users may have originally agreed to the company collecting data to “help improve the online experience“.

What the story also shows is how much care and pride Google take in their results – and how they have an effective competitive intelligence (and counter-intelligence) programme, actively comparing their results with competitors. Microsoft even recognised this by falsely accusing Google of spying via their sting operation that exposed Microsoft’s practices – with Shum commenting (my italics):

What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.

To me, this sounds like sour-grapes. How can copying a competitor’s results improve the user experience? If it doesn’t accurately portray how customer data IS used, maybe now would be the time for Microsoft to reassure customers regarding their data privacy. And rather than view the comment that Google’s exposure of Bing’s practices was a back-handed compliment, I’d see it as slap in the face with the front of the hand. However what else could Microsoft & Bing say, other than Mea Culpa.

Update – Wednesday 2 February 2011:

The war of words between Google and Bing continues. Bing has now denied copying Google’s results, and moreover accused Google of click-fraud:

Google engaged in a “honeypot” attack to trick Bing. In simple terms, Google’s “experiment” was rigged to manipulate Bing search results through a type of attack also known as “click fraud.” That’s right, the same type of attack employed by spammers on the web to trick consumers and produce bogus search results.  What does all this cloak and dagger click fraud prove? Nothing anyone in the industry doesn’t already know. As we have said before and again in this post, we use click stream optionally provided by consumers in an anonymous fashion as one of 1,000 signals to try and determine whether a site might make sense to be in our index.

Bing seems to have ignored the fact that Google’s experiment resulted from their observation that certain genuine searches seemed to be copied by Bing – including misspellings, and also some mistakes in their algorithm that resulted in odd results. The accusation of click fraud is bizarre as the searches Google used to test for click fraud were completely artificial. There is no way that a normal searcher would have made such searches, and so the fact that the results bore no resemblance to the actual search terms is completely different to the spam practice where a dummy site appears for certain searches.

Bing can accuse Google of cloak and dagger behaviour. However sometimes, counter-intelligence requires such behaviour to catch miscreants red-handed. It’s a practice carried out by law enforcement globally where a crime is suspected but where there is insufficient evidence to catch the culprit. As an Internet example, one technique used to catch paedophiles is for a police officer to pretend to be a vulnerable child on an Internet chat-room. Is this fraud – when the paedophile subsequently arranges to meet up – and is caught? In some senses it is. However saying such practices are wrong gives carte-blanche to criminals to continue their illegal practices. Bing appears to be putting themselves in the same camp – by saying that using “honeypot” attacks is wrong.

They also have not recognised the points I’ve stressed about the ethical use of data. There is a big difference between using anonymous data tracking user  behaviour on your own search engine and tracking that of a competitor. Using your competitor’s data to improve your own product, when the intelligence was gained by technology that effectively hacks into usage made by your competitor’s customers is espionage. The company guilty of spying is Bing – not Google. Google just used competitive intelligence to identify the problem, and a creative approach to counter-intelligence to prove it.

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