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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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Wikileaks and Whistleblowing!

December 5, 2010 3 comments

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger….” (Genesis Ch. 42 v7).

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens….a time to be silent and a time to speak….” (Ecclesiastes Ch 4 v1, v7)

I wasn’t planning to write about the Wikileaks affair – as in essence, I agree with Wikileaks that excessive secrecy is wrong. At the same time, as the preacher (identified with King Solomon) in the book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to speak out, and a time to remain silent.

I believe that many of the items leaked deserved to be leaked. It is wrong to keep details of torture, rape, summary executions, and various other war-crimes secret, irrespective of whether such crimes were committed by the USA, the Iraqis or whoever. War-crimes should always be exposed, and prevented. If a government tries to keep such crimes hidden, then it is the duty of responsible people to expose them. Keeping such information secret just allows for a culture that views the enemy as non-human and dispensable – and ultimately, this makes all who allow this to happen complicit in the crime.

At the same time, there is good reason to keep diplomatic negotiations hidden, however duplicitous they may appear to be – so long as there is a procedure to ensure that such records are not kept secret permanently, but are released when they are no longer politically and diplomatically sensitive. Similarly, information that could put lives at risk – through the identification of people who oppose an oppressive government or who collaborate with others to end oppression – is totally wrong.

Essentially, a leak to prevent wrong-doing is, in my view, correct, whereas a leak for some warped belief that everything should always be out in the open and public is wrong.  Whistle-blowing to prevent corruption and criminal activity is right – whether it impacts commercial or government business. There is a time to speak out, and a time to keep silent, as in the biblical story of Joseph. Had Joseph identified himself when his brothers first visited him, he would have been unable to test their sincerity and repentance. It was important that he kept his status secret – in the same way that it is important that diplomatic cables shouldn’t be revealed as a general rule.

Sarah Palin & Mike Huckabee enter – stage right.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

One reason I’d avoided discussion of Wikileaks was that Sarah Palin had just commented on the site. Having just written a blog post on her, I didn’t want to reprise some of my comments. Her view that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, should be hunted down “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders” is yet another emotive, and ill-reasoned Palinesque comment showing a lack of understanding of what al-Qaeda stand for and what the Taliban represent. Assange may have caused damage to USA interests but in no way can he be seen as an overt enemy who would like to destroy everything that the USA stands for, and to impose a totalitarian belief system on the world.

However along comes Mike Huckabee who, apparently, does not wish to be outmanoeuvered by the outspoken Mrs Palin in his dreams of entering the White House. Huckabee has called for the execution of the person accused of leaking the material to Wikileaks. 

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning

I agree that the man accused of leaking the material, Private Bradley Manning should be tried and if found guilty, punished (assuming that the trial is fair, which now with so much negative press is doubtful). I do not agree that he deserves the death penalty. He did not release the files to an enemy government and nor did he do it for cash rewards. According to reports he did it after seeing attempts to cover up possible war-crimes committed by the US – for instance an air-strike that killed a dozen people in Baghdad and where the air crew laughed at the dead, and another in Afghanistan, that killed dozens of children. This makes him a whistle-blower and not a spy or traitor, and as such, this needs to be taken into account in any penalty. An overly severe or unwarranted sentence will just serve to further deter whistle-blowing and allow corrupt officials, politicians or business managers to continue in their actions.

I also question whether it is Manning alone who should be blamed. The US government must share some blame in not protecting material they viewed as confidential. Apparently the material leaked was available to many thousands of people. Following the September 2001 terrorist outrages an attempt to stop the silo mentality that had prevented different bits of information being linked together, correctly allowed for improved sharing of intelligence. Evidently such sharing did not consider the security implications of making so much information available to so many – with minimal protection. If Manning had not leaked the material, I’m sure that somebody else with a moral conscience, seeing the Iraq video, would have.

Additionally, it was not Manning (if the leak came from him) who posted the material but Wikileaks. Wikileaks would like to be seen as a channel whereby whistle-blowers can alert the world of crimes (commercial or governmental) that are being kept hidden, and I believe there is a need for such a service. Had they fulfilled this role, they would have edited out any material that did not serve a public service in being released.

The free-rights-for-all crowd enter – stage left.

Facebook Group Logo for Boycotting Amazon over Wikileaks

Wikileaks, trying to remain online, used Amazon’s hosting service for the site. Of course, Amazon was then criticised for ostensibly supporting the service, and came under pressure to boot the service. Had they not done so, I’m sure that they would have faced a large and damaging right-wing campaign against them – especially as the peak holiday buying season approaches.  Their action however has, instead, led to a call for a boycott from those who believe in total freedom of speech regardless of the content, including a dedicated FaceBook fan page.

Had Amazon not hosted Wikileaks in the first place, neither side would have complained. Instead, Amazon has been criticised from both sides for doing what it felt was the right thing – both commercially and morally. They hosted the site – I’m sure because they believe in the moral principle of Freedom of Speech. It was not just a commercial decision – as I don’t believe that you will find any Nazi or Ku Klux Klan sites on Amazon servers. They host sites that they believe are not objectionable to their ethos. When, in the case of Wikileaks, this then threatened to be commercially damaging, they pulled the site – and get blasted by the “Freedom-of-Speech-at-all-costs” crowd who I’m sure would quickly campaign against the company if Amazon took this literally and started hosting racist, Nazi or kiddie-porn sites.

Julian Assange and Wikileaks

Wikileaks is not the first whistle-blowing web-site. My favourite – www.fuckedcompany.com – has unfortunately shut down, along with its sister site www.internalmemos.com. These two sites were important in warning investors of commercial shenanigans and companies that were having problems. Unfortunately I know of no other good sites offering such services. Wikileaks could, and should, have taken on this role. However with Assange as their editor-in-chief, they seem to be looking for headlines and controversy rather than fulfilling a role in preventing corruption and crimes being committed by both government and commerce.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange. (Is it just me who thinks that Assange has a strong resemblance to Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films? He just needs to grow his hair a bit longer and they could be twins!)

Assange, according to Wikipedia, has led a peripatetic life. He claims to be constantly on the move – starting from his childhood, where his mother, in conflict with his father, hid Assange and his half-brother for five years. Obviously very bright, Assange became a leading computer hacker at the age of 16, and claims to have studied at university level, physics, mathematics, philosophy and neuroscience.

In 2006 he founded Wikileaks with an overtly political aim of encouraging leaks to change organisations that he felt were unjust or secretive:

…the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…

Prior to the current 2010 leaks, WikiLeaks has published material relating to extra-judicial killings in Kenya, information on toxic waste dumping off Africa, Church of Scientology manuals, a report on share price manipulation (that led to criminal charges and a jail sentence for the culprits) by the Icelandic Kaupthing Bank and many more reports and items.

What next?

The latest leaks have caused severe embarrassment for the USA and many of its allies. Worringly, the response by some of the opponents to Wikileaks show how freedom in the USA is at risk. Rather than accept that their security was lax and that the leaks show signs that illegal practices are being covered up, blame is being pinned on the message and the messengers (Manning and Assange). That is not to say that either are totally innocent. Manning, if he was responsible for leaking all the documents was naive to say the least. Assange strikes me as a petulant, spoilt and amoral man who loves the publicity he is getting, and doesn’t really care who gets hurt in the process.

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

Meanwhile, I wonder whether the accusations of rape that have been made against Assange in Sweden are just an attempt by his enemies to put him behind bars. It would not be the first time that the Swedish authorities were accused of falsifying evidence to imprison an undesirable element linked to computer hacking, violence against women, espionage and the security services.  Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium Trilogy are works of fiction, detailing how corrupt elements within the Swedish secret services conspire to frame the heroine Lisbeth Salander, and keep her locked up, so as to save their own skins. Salander, like Assange, is a computer hacker who takes on and challenges authority. It would be ironic if the Swedish accusations against Assange also turned out to be false – and were an attempt by his enemies to put him away. However such things only happen in fiction…. don’t they?

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

 

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