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Posted at 7:48 PM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Google vs. Bing: Finders vs. Keepers?

By Alexandra Petri

Google has accused Bing of copying its search results.

This fight exploded over the course of the day, with increasingly official allegations and denials. Honestly, the only people using Bing were probably the Google researchers trying to see if it was borrowing their algorithm.

Bing has always been trying to get rid of its status as a bootleg Google.

Perhaps it was doomed from the start. How much success can you have as a technological cutting-edge search engine when you are named for a 1950's-era crooner? Bing sounds like someone who is in your grandmother's golf foursome. It doesn't sound like anyone you would trust around search results, not if they're supposed to be at all topical. Bing sounds like if you told him to do an Internet search, he'd grab you by the arm and tell you stories about wartime. Finally he'd take you to a desktop computer. "That has the Internet in it," he'd say, waving a finger. Bing sounds rickety.

But everyone made these objections when the search engine came out, and Microsoft decided to soldier on anyway. "What kind of a name is Google?" they shot back. "That sounds like something aliens manufacture to be used in questions on math tests." And what's in a name anyway? A rose by any other name would return fairly similar search results.

Maybe too similar.

According to Amit Singhal, Google planted a series of synthetic queries -- the equivalent of marked bills -- and inserted bizarre, oddly specific results as the top answer, as a sort of honeypot trap for Bing. Bing, in short order, began to return the same oddly specific results -- an unlikely outcome if Bing were not relying on Google's algorithm in some way. More details are on, which broke the story.

Now Google has posted the allegations on its blog, and Microsoft has denied any stealing of search results. It was simply using "opt-in data" from users to enhance its search results. This was only one of thousands of sources! Well, sure. But, online, opt-in can be a sticky concept.

Like millions of computer users, I just click "yes" and "default" when presented with new software to install. I know that someday, in the middle of a user agreement, there will be a passage where I sign away all rights to my kidneys, but I'll worry about that when the time comes. So, sure, I might have agreed that Microsoft could gather my search-field data to serve its own purposes -- "What possible benefit could that many searches of my own name and 'romantic compatibility with George Lucas' have for anyone?" I pointed out -- but this still seems unfair somehow.

"But Google has a similar image search interface," Microsoft pointed out. "And it has changed its orientation on the page." These are fair points, too. And the more alike the two search engines become, the worse for everyone. Remember Ask Jeeves? Its interface looked like a butler, and you could type in actual questions, and it would attempt to answer them! Sure, you can do the same on Google, but you feel a bit silly. Now Bing's eerily similar results, as Danny Sullivan pointed out, threaten to rob us of the unique "voice" of a search engine whose algorithm was different.

Also, as a denial of cheating, the Microsoft argument that it is simply using Google's search results as information to help it decide what its search results will be sounds ridiculous. If I'd said "I'm not cheating, Mr. Zimand, I am simply using Medora's test answers as information to help me decide what my test answers will be," well, I probably wouldn't have made it through AP U.S. History.

Finders keepers? Not if you're Google.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 1, 2011; 7:48 PM ET
Categories:  Only on the Internet, Petri  | Tags:  Google, bing, oops  
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Next: Groundhog Day 2011 results: Spring!


I'll bet anyone $5 that the name "Bing" was inspired not by the stated source, but rather from the movie "Groundhog Day"; specifically, it was the enthusiastic response by the character Ned Ryerson to a correct answer, simultaneously enhanced by the firing of a finger-pistol.

Posted by: dshepherd2 | February 1, 2011 8:19 PM | Report abuse

I stopped using IE internet explorer and started using Mozilla full time instead.
I don't appreciate being spied on by Microsoft and the Bing dopes.

Posted by: hhkeller | February 1, 2011 8:22 PM | Report abuse

Microsoft uses the Bing toolbar to improve their search results by recording what web pages people ultimately visit after searching for something... If only Google did the same....oh wait, it's called the Google toolbar. This is nothing more than cheap manipulation of the press by Google targeted towards people who don't understand what browser toolbars really do. What’s up dude

Posted by: mastermind7526 | February 2, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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