Google accuses Microsoft of snooping on its searches

Feb 2, 2011

Here's how bitter it's become in the battle between Google and Microsoft's Bing search engine.

At a conference in San Francisco, a Google executive stood on stage and accused Microsoft of using the latest version of its Internet Explorer browser to spy. Google ran a sting operation to prove his point, as summarized by Todd Bishop at TechFlash:

"In Google's tests, the company tweaked its search engine to return illogical results for made-up search terms, then had some of its engineers search and click using Internet Explorer, with Suggested Sites and the Bing Toolbar enabled. Not long after, some of the same illogical results started showing on Bing -- evidence, the company says, that Bing was mimicking the effect of its algorithm."

Microsoft doesn't deny that IE-8 and its Bing toolbar are collecting data on users' behaviors. But, the company points out, that's standard for search engines -- and the Google Toolbar has frequently been accused of doing the same thing.

A "Spy-novelesque stunt"

Harry Shum, VP for Bing, writes on his own blog that users have opted-in to share anonymous data, and:

"To be clear, we learn from all of our customers. 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. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience."

Shum goes on to say that the customer data collected on IE-8 is only a small part of a bigger formula to deliver useful search results.

Does it affect you?

The news here for average users might simply be that there are  many companies keeping track of what they click on and what they search for. And, there's a big financial stake, as Sharon Pian Chan writes in The Seattle Times:

"The tiff underscores how competitive juices still run strong in search, which Google dominates with a 66.6 percent share of the U.S. market in December, according to comScore. By contrast, Microsoft had 12 percent and Yahoo, whose search engine Microsoft now runs, had 16 percent."