Microsoft Denies Copying Google: Can It Compete in Obscure Searches?

Microsoft denies that it copies Google's search results, as Google alleges. In response to allegations from Google, Microsoft has definitively denied that its Bing search engine takes its cues from its rival. Nonetheless, the whole controversy highlights the challenges Microsoft (MSFT) faces in addressing the "long tail" market in search, or the rare -- or ultra-specific -- searches that individually make up a small market, but collectively account for a huge amount of search traffic.

Google (GOOG) excels at these long-tail searches, and has managed to ride them to dominance in search. Meanwhile, Microsoft focused -- early on -- on delivering results for more common search queries, like "real estate broker." By its own admission, the Redmond giant initially failed to realize the importance of delivering relevant search results for the plethra of obscure or rare search requests, which together yield far more traffic than the fewer hot search terms, also bringing in more advertising dollars.

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Microsoft hopes its new partnership with Yahoo will help it improve its long-tail results. By powering Yahoo searches as well as its own, Bing has gained a wider user base to learn from, and it can use click data from the searches to sharpen its results. The partnership also can support a wider breath of online ads for previously ad-free long-tail search-result pages.

Despite the recent gains from its Yahoo partnership, much of the Bing and Google flareup this week focused on those long-tail search results, according to Search Engine Land.

Bing Sting

The fracas erupted after Google released the results of its so-called "Bing sting" operation, in which it noticed similarities between the Google and Bing search results for obscure or even nonsensical search terms. Here's an example from the sting operation of a misspelled word for a rare surgical procedure called tarsorrhaphy:

Google Bing search term

Microsoft, however, denies it rode on the back of Google. In a blog post Wednesday, Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of online services, writes:
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.
We do look at anonymous click stream data as one of more than a thousand inputs into our ranking algorithm. We learn from our customers as they traverse the web, a common practice in helping to improve a wide array of online services. We have been clear about this for a couple of years (see Directions on Microsoft report, June 15, 2009).

Google engaged in 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. What does all this cloak and dagger click fraud prove? 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.
Google says it suspects that Microsoft's Bing toolbar and Internet Explorer browser -- loaded with the Suggested Sites feature -- relays users' search-result information back to Microsoft, including data from Google searches. Some users could end up disabling the Bing toolbar or Suggested Sites feature as a result of the allegation.

Microsoft declined to comment beyond its blog post and statement, and Google representatives weren't immediately available for comment.

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