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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.

Yauba – Big Brother isn’t watching you

June 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Sixty years after George Orwell published 1984 many of the ideas have, unfortunately, become commonplace. There are speed cameras watching how fast you drive, and CCTV monitoring many UK towns. On the Internet, search engines such as Google monitor your searches – keeping the data for months. They know what operating system you use. AWARE doesn’t record this information, despite showing some in our top bar, but many sites, and most search engines do).

Yauba bucks the trend by proudly announcing that it respects user privacy. Its privacy policy proudly states:

We do not keep any personally identifiable information.
Period.

Following the Iranian elections (June 2009) many Iranian dissidents and protesters have switched to Yauba, according to the searchengine blog site, Pandia.

“Ahmed Hossain, CIO of Yauba, tells Pandia: “Our traffic from Iran has jumped 300% over the past several days, as many of them are using the Yauba Search Engine and the anonymity proxy filter to access blocked sites and get news from foreign sources.”

Anonymity may be important for some people. However for most, it’s search results that count. Although Yauba claims to be able to search semantically, differentiating between Java the island, Java the coffee and Java the computer language is this a meaningless boast?

In other words is Yauba worth using for those not looking to hide their identity.

The short answer is yes. Yauba searches various types of content – which are separated. As such it enables you to quickly find Acrobat files, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, news, blogs, images, video, etc. in a single search. Each are kept distinct – and this is an interesting differentiator between it and other search engines. It also presents ways of refining queries and where there are alternative meanings it shows these – allowing users to pick the one they want.

Rather than use the search they suggest i.e. Java I put in Apple. The three meanings I thought of were

  1. The fruit
  2. The computer company
  3. The music company founded by the Beatles

In fact, there are several more – as Yauba shows:

apple can mean:
  • Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer, Inc.), a consumer electronics and software company
  • Apple Bank, an American bank in the New York City area
  • Apple Corps, a multimedia corporation founded by The Beatles
  • Apple (album), an album by Mother Love Bone
  • Apple (band), a British psychedelic rock band
  • Apple Records, record label founded by The Beatles
  • Apple I, Apple II series, Apple III, etc., various personal computer models produced by Apple, Inc and sold from 1976 until 1992.
  • Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment, an Indian experimental communication satellite launched in 1981
  • Apple (automobile), an American automobile manufactured by Apple Automobile Company from 1917 to 1918
  • Billy Apple, artist
  • Fiona Apple, a Grammy award winning American singer-songwriter
  • R. W. Apple, Jr., an associate editor at The New York Times
  • Clicking on Apple (automobile) gives a number of results – not all directly relevant but some which were. There is also a brief encyclopedia type entry at the top of the page:

    The Apple was a short-lived American automobile manufactured by Apple Automobile Company in Dayton, Ohio from 1917 to 1918. Agents were assured that its $1150 Apple 8 model was “a car which you can sell!”. Sadly for the company, it would seem that the public did not buy.

    On the right of the screen are various suggestions for alternative searches. For example, a search for apple gives:

    Compare the clarity of this to the same search on google. (Admitedly the search is not sophisticated and a competent searcher would refine the term – but for testing, it’s good enough)


    It means that amateur searchers are more likely to find resuls for complex searches – fulfilling Yauba’s claim to allow people to search without a knowledge of Boolean logic.

    Also interesting is that a component of each search includes a real-time element – from Twitter and social news from Digg. The real time search element is useful as it provides another option to scoopler.


    Sponsored ads appear to come from the Google network. There are also options to filter searches (although there is currently no information on what is being filtered) and a Lite version which seems to remove the refinement options and the top-level definitions (i.e. making it more Google like in its results presentation).

    There is also an option to refine searches – alongside the search box.

    Selection of one of the options allows further search refinement either by keyword

    or domain

    Overall I like Yauba. The interface is clean (and the black background makes a change from competitors).


    Currently the site says it’s only an early Beta / Late Alpha preview release so more work / changes can be expected. Hopefully these will include Help files explaining what the Lite search is supposed to do and what a Filtered search actually filters. Also, what syntax is acceptable – to refine searches. Does Boolean searching actually work, for example? On my brief tests it seemed to – as did phrase searching i.e. putting search terms in quotes. What about other options – could any of the advanced search options from Exalead be included. And will the site cover more countries, than the current small number (Italy, France, UK, India, Brazil, Russia and the .com site)? Yauba promises to cover more countries – I’m just surprised that there is no Chinese or German version as I would have expected these before the Italian version. I guess the Yauba team have Italian speakers but currently no Chinese speakers.

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