There's nothing unusual about Microsoft reverse engineering Google search results to improve Bing, but is it right?

When Microsoft announced its July 2009 search deal with Yahoo, and even before, Steve Ballmer said the increased scale would help improve the quality of Bing search results. Perhaps Microsoft's CEO was wrong, or Yahoo search didn't give enough scale. Bing started serving up Yahoo search results late last year. But Bing also is serving up Google results, as was widely reported yesterday. How desperate is that -- or is it, gasp, clever?

To briefly, recap: Yesterday morning, at Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan reported that "Bing has been watching what people search for on Google, the sites they select from Google's results, then uses that information to improve Bing's own search listings. Bing doesn't deny this." They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but c`mon, what's right about this and wrong with the math behind Microsoft's search algorithm?

Microsoft has a long reputation of copying competitors, and here isn't just copying Google but Yahoo. When Yahoo launched its search engine in the latter 1990s, it did so using people. Human beings tabulated search queries to improve them. Later, Google automated the process, removing the assembly line and improving search results. Microsoft uses a little of the old method to copy Google results.

Well, that's one way for Microsoft to keep from laying off any more of its 88,414 employees, or perhaps the work is contracted out -- gasp, overseas? Ballmer often touts how much Microsoft spends on research and development. Wouldn't Microsoft R&D dollars be better invested in catching up in mobile rather than lifting search results from Google?

Copying as Reverse Engineering

But copying competitors' methods or technologies is nothing new. It's standard business practice everywhere. Companies reverse engineer a successful product and release their own. What is Pepsi but an imitation of Coca-Cola? Microsoft exists today because of successful reverse engineering. Cofounders Paul Allen and Bill Gates are often credited with shrewdly licensing rather than selling MS-DOS to IBM. That allowed Microsoft to license the software to other companies, except there really were none in 1981.

Then Compaq reverse-engineered IBM's BIOS, changing everything. The Texas-based company built an IBM PC compatible portable, affectionally called a "luggable," that was announced in November 1982 and went on sale in January 1983. The Compaq Portable laid the foundation for modern Microsoft, shifting the primary business to operating systems from programming languages and establishing the partner ecosystem that would spread DOS and later Windows everywhere.

Copying -- eh, reverse engineering -- is a tried-and-proved-successful business model. Microsoft's reputation for copying competitors -- from Apple's Macintosh user interface (which concept was lifted from Xerox PARC) to many utility features later incorporated into Windows. Microsoft didn't invent the spreadsheet or wordprocessor, even though its productivity suite is overwhelmingly the global leader.

So, in a way, Microsoft's lifting Google search results and using them to improve Bing isn't all that surprising. After all, Google has far greater scale than Bing to achieve the objectives Ballmer claimed Yahoo search would bring. But getting caught is something else, and it's a helluva black eye for Microsoft.

Caught in Google's Honey Pot

Later today, Google will hold a developer event disclosing more information about Android 3.0, aka Honeycomb. Google has another honey. The information giant set up a "honey pot" to catch Microsoft copying search queries. Yesterday, Google Fellow Amit Singhal laid out the gritty details in blog post "Microsoft Bing uses Google search results -- and doesn't deny it." Singhal explains:

It all started with tarsorrhaphy. Really. As it happens, tarsorrhaphy is a rare surgical procedure on eyelids. And in the summer of 2010, we were looking at the search results for an unusual misspelled query [torsorophy]. Google returned the correct spelling -- tarsorrhaphy -- along with results for the corrected query. At that time, Bing had no results for the misspelling. Later in the summer, Bing started returning our first result to their users without offering the spell correction (see screenshots below). This was very strange. How could they return our first result to their users without the correct spelling? Had they known the correct spelling, they could have returned several more relevant results for the corrected query.

This example opened our eyes, and over the next few months we noticed that URLs from Google search results would later appear in Bing with increasing frequency for all kinds of queries: popular queries, rare or unusual queries and misspelled queries. Even search results that we would consider mistakes of our algorithms started showing up on Bing.

Microsoft's reaction set the Web abuzz yesterday. Harry Shum, Bing vice president, posted:

We woke up to an interesting (and interestingly timed) article by Danny Sullivan about some complaints Google has about how it says Bing ranks results...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.

He went on to describe the history of the web and the importance of collected intelligence. Right, intelligence collected from Google search queries. Microsoft's non-denial has PR tongues wagging at both Google and Microsoft, as MG Siegler smartly observed last night at TechCrunch: "Wow, Microsoft And Google Are Punching Each Other In The Face Right In Front Of Us!"

But what all the commentators are missing is this: Microsoft using Google search queries to improve Bing results -- in a sense reverse engineering Google's search science -- is business as usual. Is it the right thing to do? That's the question for you to answer in comments.

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