Innovation

by Mike Masnick


Filed Under:
bing, copying, innovation, search

Companies:
google, microsoft



Microsoft Highlights Why Google's 'Cheater' Accusations Ring Hollow

from the good-for-them dept

We had a long discussion recently about Google's response to discovering that Microsoft used clickstream data from users to help improve the relevance of their own search. Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi has now written up a much more detailed response from Microsoft's point of view, in which it again clarifies that contrary to Google's statements, Microsoft is not "copying" Google's search results, but merely using clickstream data as one of many (Microsoft says approximately 1,000) variables in improving search relevance. Microsoft does take one cheap shot: noting that, technically, the "honeypot" trick that Google used to uncover this certainly appears to be a form of "clickfraud." That is, it was a trick designed specifically to manipulate Bing's search results.

But the key point is made towards the end:
We have brought a number of things to market that we are very proud of -- our daily home page photos, infinite scroll in image search, great travel and shopping experiences, a new and more useful visual approach to search, and partnerships with key leaders like Facebook and Twitter. If you are keeping tabs, you will notice Google has "copied" a few of these. Whether they have done it well we leave to customers. But more importantly, we take no issue and are glad we could help move the industry to adopt some good ideas.
That's the point that I tried to make in the original post. History has shown that innovation occurs via competition, and part of that competition often involves competitors building on each other's work. A few months back, I wrote a review of the excellent book Copycats by Oded Shenkar, which makes this point very, very clear. Innovation happens when companies build on each other's work. But, what you learn is that it's not just about "copying," it's about all of the players learning, innovating and expanding the overall market. Just straight up copying rarely does enough to make a difference (in fact, we've discussed this problem in the form of cargo cult copying, where companies just copy some superficial aspect, and discover that it's meaningless). That's clearly not what Microsoft was doing here.

In the comments to our original post, someone made the comment, in defense of Google, by saying if what Microsoft did was okay, then couldn't he just go out and say "I've got a billion dollar search engine idea!" and then just copy Google's results. But, of course, if anyone actually thinks this through, they'd realize that copying Google's search results is not a billion dollar search idea. Assuming that, tomorrow, we launched a "new search engine" that gave the identical results to Google, almost no one would use it. Why would you? There's no real advantage to doing so. And for people who already use Google, it's probably much more integrated into their lives, with Gmail, Google Docs and more. The search results themselves are not the "billion dollar idea." It's the overall execution.

Hopefully Google learns from this and realizes that it has learned plenty from watching Microsoft as well, and complaining about Microsoft using clickstream data is a waste of time. Focus on continuing to innovate, Google, which'll probably mean learning more things from Microsoft, in addition to what you're doing yourself.

To be fair, Matt Cutts also has a put together a decent response, where he points out that the real issue here may be disclosure -- in that Microsoft did not clearly disclose that it was using clicskstream data (and especially how it was using that data). That's a perfectly reasonable point, but it was not the original point that Google raised. I agree that Microsoft could and should be much clearer in its disclosure -- but that's a totally separate issue. Cutts also explains why he thinks that Microsoft really is "copying," but again, even if we grant that premise (which I don't think is accurate), I still don't see why that matters. Copying and improving is a part of the innovative process. Google should embrace it.

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  1. icon
    Xander C (profile), 4 Feb 2011 @ 8:00am

    Missing Backstory

    Mike, for your concideration:
    http://www.npr.org/2011/02/02/133443201/Google-Bing-Tussle-Over-Search

    The "Search Rip-off" came about as Google's lead engineers started noticing Bing's searches on misspelled words where getting identical fixes and results.

    "LAURA SYDELL: When you type a search request into Google, say, Hosni Mubarak, and you're a couple of letters off, Google can usually figure out what you mean.

    Mr. AMIT SINGHAL (Software Engineer, Google): And getting these queries right is an incredibly hard task. It's a very challenging algorithm.

    SYDELL: That's Amit Singhal. He's the lead of the search team at Google. A few months back, they noticed something strange. A user searched for tarsorrhaphy.

    Mr. SINGHAL: It was this real medical procedure that some users generally needed to know about.

    SYDELL: The user misspelled it. But Google's algorithms figured out what he needed. Singhal noticed that competitor Bing didn't bring up any results until a few weeks later.

    Mr. SINGHAL: Bing started showing the topmost relevant result for that spelling correction to their users.

    SYDELL: Hmm.

    Mr. SINGHAL: Now, we got suspicious. However, we said, maybe they came up with some clever algorithm and they did it.

    SYDELL: But Singhal and his team decided to do a little experiment. They began to do searches for silly made-up words, and they created fake results unrelated to those words. A few weeks later...

    Mr. SINGHAL: Microsoft's Bing started showing the same artificial result for the same synthetic query. And this was just conclusive to us at that point."

    While Bing has offered great things to Searching, there was clearly a copy of services that could not be explained by just creating their own proper code. As noted, Bing was "learning" from people using Google though IE 7/8, sending over data as to what was being searched and what Google returned with for those queries. That's a level of shady we've come to expect from MS and needs to be called out.

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