Search wars: Microsoft outdoes Google's copying claim by alleging fraud

Uh-oh, the plot thickens in the war of words between Google and Microsoft over pilfered search queries. No less than Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft's Online Services Division, has piped up a fervent denial. You know what, emotionally, I want to believe him. Mehdi is one of the few at Microsoft I respect, and he doesn't get enough respect inside the company.

He blogged this afternoon: "We do not copy results from any of our competitors. Period. Full stop. We have some of the best minds in the world at work on search quality and relevance, and for a competitor to accuse any one of these people of such activity is just insulting." Well, I'm glad that's cleared up, or is it?

The fuss started yesterday with a blog post at Search Engine Land by Danny Sullivan and another post from Google Fellow Amit Singhal. Singhal's post was as explicit as Mehdi's denial: "However you define copying, the bottom line is, these Bing results came directly from Google."

Last year, researchers at Google discovered remarkably similar results showing up from Bing -- a little too identical. So Google researchers set a trap. In a surprisingly indignant response, Mehdi accused Google of setting up 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."

Let me see if I understand this right. In a blog post presenting reams of evidence, Google accuses Microsoft of copying search results. Microsoft responds by calling Google a spammer and alleges click fraud, with no more backing than one executive's say-so. Seriously, Mehdi has got some balls. Watch your back, Steve Ballmer. There are among your veeps, men who could replace you as chief executive. Remember that when Mehdi was one of MSN's big kahoonas, the division now called the Online Services Business was profitable, and not since.

"What does all this cloak and dagger click fraud prove?" Mehdi asks. "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."

So, like, is that a believable excuse? In a way, it is. Considering that Google is the dominant search engine in most countries, including the United States, its results would dominate the so-called "anonymous click stream" Microsoft collects. But that excuse leaves a lot of unanswered questions. If Microsoft is automatically and anonymously collecting data, then why was the honeypot effective and why is Mehdi's reaction -- something I'd expect from someone who'd been caught with his hands in the honeypot -- accusation about Google playing a trick and committing click fraud?

Something else: The results might be anonymous for the user, but are they anonymous for the search engine? Surely Microsoft knows what kind of results Bing delivers and can capably sift out the results from other search engines. Then there is the question of how Microsoft incorporates the data collected from all search engines to improve Bing? If there is a kind of cut-and-paste quality to the incorporation, isn't that by definition copying?

My emotional reaction is to trust Mehdi. But my reasoning doesn't see how Microsoft can collect anonymous data without sifting its search results from competitors; surely that's exactly what OSB researchers would want to do to gauge the effectiveness of Bing search. Additionally, if Microsoft incorporates any of the data into its search processes, how can Mehdi or anyone else reasonably say there is no copying of competitor search queries?

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