Even if Microsoft did copy Google’s search results the practice couldn’t be scaled enough to mimic Google’s algorithms in any widespread and meaningful way, search industry analysts and executives said.
It would also be impossible for Microsoft to use the copied results as a basis for reverse-engineering Google’s secret search algorithms, those people said. Plus, ultimately, Microsoft probably isn’t interested in having a search engine that acts exactly like Google’s anyway, they said.
“This whole thing is a little silly,” said Gord Hotchkiss, senior vice president at digital marketing provider Mediative.
Last week, Google loudly published the findings of an internal investigation that it said proved that Microsoft, using its Internet Explorer browser and Bing toolbar, collected data about its users’ Google search queries and the results they produced.
Google characterized the practice as cheating. Microsoft responded that end users allow it to collect that data, and that the information it collects is one of more than a thousand other “signals” it uses to refine its search results.
The vociferous debate has played out since Tuesday in the media, on stage at a Microsoft-sponsored search event and through multiple posts on Google and Microsoft blogs.
Google said it doesn’t plan any legal steps against Microsoft but called for the practice to stop. Microsoft says Google had exaggerated the gravity of the issue by basing its investigation on artificial and nonsensical queries.
As the dust settles and observers weigh the companies’ positions, Microsoft may have come out ahead. Industry analysts and executives apparently are having a hard time sympathizing with Google’s grievance, which they view at best as minor.
Charlene Li, founder of technology research and advisory firm Altimeter Group, saw Google’s actions as a misguided response to a real threat from a competitor in its core search business.
“Google isn’t used to having competition. You look at this incident and you wonder why they are doing this. It feels amateurish in a way, a kind of ‘they’re not playing fair’ attitude,” she said.
“Instead of making your competition look bad, something like this makes you look petty,” she said. “This doesn’t reflect well on Google. I would think they would be above this.”
Hotchkiss, who attended the Microsoft event, called “Farsight 2011: Beyond the Search Box,” on Tuesday, cringed when Google officials made the copying accusation an issue on and off stage.
“I felt that was inappropriate. It wasn’t aligned to the topic of the summit. It was irrelevant to what the content should have been. It seemed to have been done only to stir controversy,” said Hotchkiss, a search marketing executive whose company Enquiro was acquired last year by Canada Yellow Pages Group and folded into Mediative.
Google has a right to cry foul if it thinks Microsoft is doing something unfair or inappropriate, but the intensity of the complaint has been disproportionate to the offense, those interviewed said.
“It seems like making a big deal out of something that isn’t that big a deal. This isn’t the secret sauce of Google’s algorithm, it’s a minor signal,” Hotchkiss said. “It doesn’t amount to anything important.”
The practice documented by Google, in which Bing produced the same results as Google for nonsensical query terms that Google planted in its search engine, would occur in the real world only for uncommon terms that draw very little traffic and are “on the fringes of the index,” he said.
Google’s denunciation of Microsoft as a kind of search plagiarist also left IDC analyst Al Hilwa scratching his head.
“Producing desirable search results is one piece of the search puzzle. The key to systematically having good results is how effective is the crawling and indexing at the back end, and that is something not possible to mimic with browsers,” he said via e-mail.
“I find the discussion around collecting data from browsers a little comical because Google itself has been accused of collecting too much usage data from Chrome users, which it claims it uses to optimize,” Hilwa added.
Kevin Lee, CEO of the search marketing firm Didit and a board director of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), also doesn’t understand the intensity of Google’s outrage.
“I can’t imagine that Larry and Sergey didn’t look at AltaVista and Excite back in the early days in an attempt to learn what people liked, disliked and what improvements could be made,” he said, referring to Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who created Google at a time when AltaVista and Excite were leading search engines.
“Seems like a lot of hoopla about nothing. It’s not like having stolen source code,” Lee added via e-mail.
Bruce Clay, president of the search marketing and optimization firm that bears his name, sees nothing wrong with what Microsoft is doing. “Sniffing Web traffic is not uncommon in the analysis space, and watching user behavior is smart business,” he said via e-mail.
“This is not like Bing has stolen an algorithm. It is more like seeing a line at a competitor store and going in to see what is going on — you are not stealing secrets, just paying attention,” added Clay, also a SEMPO board director.
Plus, Microsoft is smart enough to know that to compete better in search it needs to innovate, not replicate what Google is doing, which to an extent is still based on the original Page Rank algorithm it developed more than 10 years ago, said Hotchkiss, a past SEMPO chairman who now sits on its board of advisers.
“It would be like Ford trying to win the automotive wars by copying a 1998 Honda,” he said.