Fight between Google, Bing over search reawakens sleepy industry

Caught in the ActThe desktop search engine industry has been awfully quiet lately. Just looking at the search volume in Google Trends reveals that there’s been little positive change in the past 12 months (see chart below). But early this week, everything suddenly changed as the two search engine giants got into a fight over Google calling out Bing for copying their search results. In summary, Google baited Bing by creating illogical search results for “synthetic” queries (aka nonsense terms). Google recruited 20 engineers with Suggested Sites in Internet Explorer 8 and had them search for these fake term in Google until the results showed up in Bing (about 2 weeks!). The next day Microsoft fired back at Google explaining that the algorithm to prioritize search results uses multiple “signals” along with collective intelligence to determine search quality and in this case Google simply exposed this flaw. In essence, the flaw suggests that Microsoft considers Google to be the authoritative source whenever the result set is limited.

While there is no denying that Bing autogenerated the same results as Google, there are two important lessons that technologists and marketers should learn from this fight:

First, your browsing habits are not private. Are you surprised? I recall an incident from several years back where an administrative tool was accidentally indexed by Google. How did the spider find the tool? While there were no links to the tool, the admin manager had bookmarked the site using the Google Toolbar. FYI: the Google Toolbar shares links among computers by storing bookmarks in the cloud. So it seems that Google’s spider dipped into the manager’s bookmark data (as there were no links to this tool on the web) and just added it to their cache. Thankfully, the link disappeared once a rule was added to the robots.txt file to exclude the tool from Google. So Google clearly is not an innocent bystander in this fight to catalog the web.

Second, search is still an automated process. While there are a few engines that still curate search results via human-powered review (eg: Blekko and Mahalo), the majority of the searches for the foreseeable future will depend on algorithms that will be tweaked only when and if necessary. That trend will hold true until enough of us get tired of these giants and switch to the smaller alternatives.