Google Turns To Bullying As Innovation Slows

by on 02/02/2011 • 42 Comments | SEO

Yesterday was an emotional day. We woke up to strong accusations from Google (via Danny Sullivan) that Bing was cheating, we then moved into the Farsight event where we watched Google’s Matt Cutts and Bing’s Harry Chum wail on each other in public. When that was done, we moved to watching Google and Bing’s official blogs (and micro-blogs) to see them continue the public punches. When that was finished, SEOs decided to pick up their own mitts and go at it amongst themselves on Twitter. I don’t know about you, but even I could use a cigarette. And I don’t even smoke.

The turn of events that unfolded on Tuesday was enough to give anyone a serious search-fueled headache. But more importantly, it was enough for many people to take a hard look at Google and ask, “what the hell are you doing?

It has to be an interesting time to be a Googler right now. Your controversial CEO, the proclaimed “adult in the room“, has removed himself right as the company is getting pounded over search quality issues. Everyone is watching and waiting to see what you’re going to do and how you’re going to handle things. So what do you do? Do you throw everything you have into improving search quality and quietly moving the conversation forward OR do you start in on a distraction campaign, planting seeds and calling out the guy sitting next to you?

Well, we know what Google chose to do.

Don’t get me wrong – do I think Google is working its ass off right now to increase search quality and prove to the world they’re still the best? Yeah I do. Or at least when they’re not organizing sting operations. But yesterday’s antics were the move of an arrogant brand and it certainly hasn’t done them any favors with the tech community. Your strongest cards are the ones you haven’t played yet. You get yourself in trouble when you show your cards and they reveal you for being a whining hypocrite.

I think Matt Cutts is worth his weight in gold in terms of being a face and a voice for Google’s spam team. But not even Matt could help Google save face yesterday. For the search giant to call out Microsoft for ‘copying’ its results is ridiculous. Not after Google has made a fortune copying and stealing from everyone else.

I didn’t see Google having a moral crisis when it stole Google Universal from Ask 3D. I haven’t seen them show regret over creating product clones for startups they couldn’t simply buy. I haven’t seen them show too much sympathy when they steal content from artists, authors, bloggers and anyone else they want to include it in their search results and ‘organize the world’s information’. I guess it’s only offensive when it happens to them.

For a decade, Google has been walking the fine line between innovation and infringement. They’re in no position to be throwing stones when others get behind them. Planting a story that Bing was “copying”, to me, is almost worthy of an apology. Bing is doing exactly what you’d expect them to be doing. They’re using a wide range of signals in their algorithm, one of them happens to be SERP clickthrough data.  Perhaps not 100 percent kosher to Google, but probably nothing any one of us wouldn’t do in the same situation. I might even be concerned about Bing if they weren’t doing it.

And Google knows that. So why the accusations and why yesterday?

  • To hijack the Farsight event?
  • To put negative attention on someone else and remove itself from the hot seat?
  • To show they’re not the only ones struggling in search?
  • Because bullying is the natural follow up when innovation ends?

I don’t know. Maybe you can fill me in. To me, it looked like Google wasn’t ready to publicly confront its own spam issues so they planted the story to give everyone something else to talk about. This wasn’t information that came to light for Google yesterday. They planned their sting, planted their honeypot and then sat on the information until it was convenient to release – when Google and Microsoft would be in the same room and when Google would have questions they didn’t want to answer. There’s not much honor in that. I would have hoped someone of Google’s size and share would be open to taking responsibility and criticism. Yesterday wasn’t just emotional, it was kind of a sad dethroning.

My mother always told me that my time was better spent focusing on myself and improving upon what I was doing instead of tattling on the person next to me. Google could stand to take some of my mother’s advice. Also, keeping blekko’ing, Blekko. As the only engine with the balls to make a hard stand, you came out looking like a champ yesterday.

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

42 thoughts on “Google Turns To Bullying As Innovation Slows

  1. I don’t agree. It’s one thing to use your own click-through data but it’s quite another to use a competitors click-through data in an automated way. It just smacks of stealing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about looking at ideas and improving upon them as everyone (including Google) does constantly. It feels to me that Bing crossed the line here. It feels sleazy.

    Also, with the timing, I really felt that Danny’s explanation was sufficient. They wanted to talk it over with Danny. Danny could get confirmation from Bing if it was true and he wasn’t available until Friday. This could have broke a week or two ago it’s just the timing collided.

    This automated stealing would just grate on you. Yes, they should have let it flow over them and continue to try and innovate but I’m glad they are emotional about their jobs. It shows they care.

    • I can definitely see why Google has its panties in a bunch over it, but I’m still not ready to shame Bing. It’s not like they’re seeing what sites Google ranks first and then dropping them at number one. They’re looking at the data and using it to make their engine smarter. I get why Google’s upset, I think I’m too impressive with Bing’s cleverness to be offended by it. :)

      The timing thing still gets me. They’ve had the data for a month. Did they really need to Danny (no offense, Danny! Think you’re awesome!) to break the story for them? Its just fishy and if this was the only time there was an “odd” timing issue on Google’s end, I’d probably forgive them, but this stuff seems to miraculously happen a lot.

      • I wanted to hold off on forming an opinion, but I thought Bing’s response was too telling to ignore..

        Instead of saying “so what?” or trying to justify their own data collection efforts, they blamed Google for “sabotaging” their Bing results with a simple spelling test. It reminded me of a time I “sabotaged” a scraper by posting an insulting post about their site and screen capping where they trash talked themselves on their own domain.

        So if Bing is going to rely on another site for data, they’re taking an easy exit and ultimately ceding control over “their” product. Whether there’s a legal line being crossed here or not, it doesn’t give me much faith in Bing.

  2. An excellently written summation of the drama yesterday. You managed to take all the twitter & blog action and distill it down into the important facts and present the picture accurately. Thanks for un-confusing me :)

    Google is starting to show its true colors. While I honestly believe that the founders had good intentions, there’s no denying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that the company has been overreaching for quite some time. Your somewhat rhetorical question, “Because bullying is the natural follow up when innovation ends?” is best answered with… yes. Yes, it is.

    • Thanks, Daniel. Happy to try and unclutter some of the clutter.

      I just wonder how a younger Google would have handled this situation. Would they have acted the way they did yesterday or would they have reacted differently, focusing on themselves? I tend to think it’s the latter. It’s the old vet yelling at the kids to get off his lawn because he can’t get up and chase them off himself.

      • They should just get creative and try and figure out how to block the IE search bar some way… There has got to be a way!

        It just reminds me of when people steal your images and use the same URL so you see it in your analytics. Being pissed and devious, you then replace the image with some horrible STEALER pic that shows up on their website.

        • I’m not an IE user, so I have no dog in the hunt, but if I was, I sure wouldn’t want Google & Microsoft going to the mattresses in my browser’s innards or toolbars.

          Besides, the complaint boils down to “Bing is using data it collects to influence their SERPs”, something that Google itself does, too. I get the image hotlinking analogy, but I don’t think it’s 100% accurate because Bing isn’t simply displaying Google results.

          • I agree. I think if Bing was seeing which sites Google was ranking and simply using them, that’d be different (and a really, really sad strategy), but that’s not what’s happening here. Google needs to not try and criticize others for living the way they always have. Keep up or go home.

            • The sad thing is that this “sting” is just a glorified parlor trick. I can rank #1 for the term “sjasdhgjkasdf” tomorrow if I wanted to, but where’s the value? Where’s the context? It looks to me like, in the absence of any other context, Bing basically said, “hey, if Google thinks that this phrase is relevant to this website, we’ll go with that because we don’t have any data saying otherwise”. On pages that matter with search terms that real people use? Totally different story.

              And elsewhere in this thread, we’ve been talking about the IE toolbar – yet the Google toolbar also tracks usage across the web, not just on google.com. Does the Google toolbar ignore what users do on Bing or any other search site? I’m no expert on this, so maybe they do behave differently, but I would be very, very surprised if they do.

              I can’t believe I’m defending Microsoft… what has the world come to?

          • I’m not an IE user either. I use Chrome mostly and FF in other cases. I’m fine with Google using my results to better improve their search engines. If I did use IE, I would be fine with IE using my results to improve as well. Maybe I never fully realized that those toolbars would be sneaking on other sites though? I feel like they should simply report back and improve through their own services. Take the data, analyze it, and figure out how to do better.

            As for Bing displaying Google’s results. I feel they are. Bing is taking completely irrelevant results for keywords and showing them, simply because Google is. In a variety of different ways. Completely automated. That’s just too much for me.

            Collect all the data

            • I agree with Kristi, here. Just because Bing hides behind “user data” as a proxy for scraping results doesn’t make it any less shady. In fact, it’s even MORE shady, if you ask me, because they are relying on Google users to tell them what data sets to grab in the first place!

              What gets me the most about this whole thing is that Bing has proclaimed themselves (in their own marketing) as an alternative to the “search overlord”. What a joke.

              I just don’t see how you can criticize Google for being a bully (as opposed to innovating) when they’re just calling out their biggest competitor for taking shortcuts via piggybacking on their…innovations.

            • I think we are missing an important point hence simply concluding that Bing is showing Google’s results. Consider that, the way Bing is using (with user’s acknowledgement) the toolbar data, it doesn’t matter what Google’s results in terms of rank/order of the link clicked was. The link doesn’t have to be #1 link (which the algorithm seems to think is most relevant). Actually, no matter where the clicked link was in terms of ranking/order (served up by Yahoo, Google, Bing, Ask, etc.), the fact that the User chose that specific link from the many offered – it means something beyond what the algorithm produced and hence the use as a signal (amongst others).

              Infact its most useful when the user chooses anything but the #1 link – that’s where the opportunity lies to learn what the user really intended to search and why the algorithm did not rank it that way.

  3. To be honest, Google lost my favor when they ditched h264 video compression support to favor their WebM for mere political reasons – namely to cockblock Apple. Their innovation stops where business rules masked as “open-ness principles” start, it seems like.

  4. As a search engine user, I don’t care whether Bing is stealing Google’s search results. Even if they are, copying your competitor instead of doing things better than them is not a winning long-term strategy. What I care about is whether Google is giving me a good product, and lately, with the spam taking over the SERPs, they’re not. A consumer-focused tactic would be to address the problems the users are facing — spam, and deal internally, not publicly, with the “problem” Google is facing — Bing “stealing.”

    • I think that’s the core for me. Instead of publicly lamenting about how unfair life is, Google should be 100 percent focused on fixing their product. You’re so upset with the Bing thing – deal with it internally. There’s no need to have a press conference about it or to bring Danny Sullivan in to blow open the scenario (though, no fault to Danny). They were looking for the press. Why? Focus on what you’re doing and fixing what’s broken. The rest doesn’t matter to users and makes you look dumb.

  5. I DO agree. If you stand on top for so long where else do you have to go? So now calling out Bing for this? That type of news doesn’t seem like something that would deter people from using it all of a sudden. Also, it confirms that using Bing isn’t a bad alternative to Google since your results come in part by following click-throughs.

  6. We’ve all been there before. Someone copies one of your articles and republishes it on their own site with their own name listed and any reference to you, the real author, has been stripped out.

    Thinking back when that first happened to me, I was angry. I wanted them to go down in flames. I think Google just experienced this and they may need to get used to it because if Bing gets away with it, more will likely come.

    Monitoring purposes seems legitimate to me, but auto-publishing the same results and passing it off as your own work seems very wrong.

    • Eh, I’m having a hard time following the argument that Bing essentially stole Google’s content and republished it with their name on it. They’re looking at click data, they’re not manually lifting things. That’s just my two cents. And trust me, no one is more annoyed at having their content continually lifting than I am. :D

      • I was aiming more at that feeling & reaction when someone copies you. As content creators on the web, we’ve all gotten used to it, but at the beginning, we probably wanted someone’s head.

        However, if you look closely at one of Google’s examples, they created an artificial search phrase and displayed a random Credit Union Site which has no references or links to that word in any way. Bam – the exact same listing showed up in Bing. If that isn’t auto-infusing search results based purely off Google’s algorithim, then I don’t know what is.

        • Well, if you have 20 engineers sitting passing that search term through the bing toolbar and going to that site, bing is going to assume thats correct as that is the ONLY data point it has. Its not copying, its saying “in the interests of completeness, some jack wagon thinks this search term = this search result, so we’ll roll with it”

          • That has to be the most poignant statement made in all the comments I have read since this fiasco started 3 days ago. Nice summary of my exact thoughts on the whole ordeal.

  7. Funny Bing would copy the results considering how crappy they are starting to look. With that said, you would think Google would work on optimizing its revenue streams rather then snitchin’ like a bunch of punks.

      • Google can do both, and I don’t blame them for speaking up on this. They can protect their algorithm and property while improving their product. Just like bloggers can band trolls and send DMCA notices to scrapers while writing good content.

  8. Ahhhh, this is so refreshing. It’s refreshing because for once, someone has their eyes wide open about the true nature of Google.
    Thank you Lisa for putting a smile on my face this morning.
    @SebastienPage

  9. Two points are, I think, worth remembering:
    - apparently only 9% of Google’s bait was taken. That hardly shows ‘systematic copying’.
    - Microsoft wasn’t looking at Google pages, they were looking at the clickstream data of their own customers – Google employees were instructed to deliberately go in and feed disinformation.

    But I think it is all a storm in a teacup – i am more worried that Google was able to force pages to the top of rankings manually. Sure, they’ve disabled it now – sure, they say they have, but this is a company who apparently didn’t even know their streetview cars were recording data. Would you believe no one on staff is changing rankings manually?

    • ” i am more worried that Google was able to force pages to the top of rankings manually.” Me, too. But this is hardly a surprise, is it?

  10. I am continually entertained by how Microsoft and Google battle each other. The other day I tried to perform a Bing search via Google Chrome, and Bing threw up an error page saying the browser was not supported. Come on. And I love how if you’re trying to access Google Analytics in Internet Explorer you get a message prompting you to upgrade to a “more modern browser.” As for this latest copying thing, I still find that search rankings (at least for the keyphrases I try to rank my site for) are substantially different on Bing than they are on Google. I do agree that the two companies are bullying each other (and that Google innovation is definitely slowing.) It will be interesting to see who comes out on top in the end.

  11. I followed the whole show and wondered when Lisa Barone would comment on it!

    I agree, what Bing does seems the slightest (only slightest) bit shady. But Google calling it out? Really?

    On the other hand, I was so thrilled by the Google Art Project. I’ve always wanted to visit the Met and now I can wait a few more years before making it to New York. (I live in India.) Why not stick to stuff like that, Google?

  12. Whatever the reason behind it (I think probably a mix of all of the above bullet points), it’s been quite amusing to watch the two major players go at it like high school girls! I don’t think Google expected the backlash it’s received either!

  13. Something to consider – since organic search results don’t generate revenue – is there an algorithm that offers marginal organic results so that users are more likely to click on paid ads? Google’s Adwords Quality Score forces more relevant ads to the top of the page – where they are often competing with spam and content farms – leading to more clicks on the ads.

  14. What I don’t like about the latest changes to Google results is that we now have no control over whether Places appear in searches that mention a locality. Okay, so previously you had to opt in to see Places results by clicking “Maps” and maybe some people who only used Google occasionally would not know about this option. So you could argue the case to make the default that “Places” was turned on.

    But they’ve gone further than that, you have no choice – you can’t turn it off! :(

  15. The user was also a Microsoft customer (had IE and bing toolbar installed). Google did not have the exclusive rights over the customer’s data. The customer explicitly chose to send the browsing data to Microsoft.

    Bing did not use the google search results (they did not know all the 10 blue links, they did not know the rankings).

    Does Google toolbar/Chrome browser not send similar (possibly exact same) data home ?

    News sites do extensive research to come up with their content – G has no issues with using that content for free.
    G does extensive research to come up with their content (SERP) – if someone else uses that content for free then they cry.

  16. I agree, it is cheap for Google to try to win points by beating up on Bing, just like it’s cheap for SEOs to win points by beating up on, the easy target, Google…oh, wait…what?

  17. Yeah. Gonna have to disagree. It’s equivalent to a scraper stealing your blog article and reposting it. I’ve seen you get upset by that every now and then, and Google shouldn’t be any less upset by this sort of thing. I think they have strong legal grounds for a lawsuit.

  18. Re: “It was enough for many people to take a hard look at Google and ask, “what the hell are you doing?”

    Google did win this PR round, though. They diverted attention from the big issue, which is that Google’s AdSense system monetizes most of the junk on the web, and too many of those junk pages appear in Google search results. Bing “stealing” from Google got far more press.

    Blekko gets points for taking a hard-line attitude on web spam and making that a selling point. We (as SiteTruth) have been doing that for a while, but we focused on automatically filtering out the “bottom-feeders” – the sites with no identifiable real-world business behind them but which were clearly doing something commercial. Blekko started at the top – manually identifying good sources for health information, and then blacklisting the “content farms”.

    Web spam used to be a little-guy business. Now, with Marchex (the “what you need, when you need it” company with tens of thousands of junk domains) and Demand Media being public companies, web spam has become an industrial strength operation. This makes that part of the problem easier to solve – the biggest spammers are known.

    What’s lacking, at the big search engines, is the will. That Google doesn’t kill their AdSense cash cow is understandable. But it’s not clear why Bing lets that junk through. Bing sends traffic to made-for-AdSense sites, which is pointless from both a user experience and a business perspective.

    What I suspect (and I’m conjecturing here) is that Bing’s organic search team thinks that their goal is to get results like Google’s. That would explain the embarrassing attempt to follow Google’s search results. This latest debacle may be a wake-up call for Bing. Bing can potentially do better than Google, because Bing doesn’t have Google’s addiction to AdSense revenue to overcome.

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