Business Software

Lies, Damned Lies and Search Engines

Bad Microsoft! Bad! No biscuit for you!

If Microsoft were a dog, I'd be scolding it for its latest foolishness. It turns out that rather than searching the Internet on its own, it's been riding the coattails of Google . This isn't just a theory. Google set up a clever trap, and Microsoft's search engineers fell right into it.

It's an interesting little story, and I'll get into the juicy details in a minute. But the affair also leads me to ask the general public whether they have ever recognized that the results that search engines supply are inherently prone to bias and incompleteness. The extent to which that is true is something that every Web user should grapple with.

But now to the Google-Microsoft flap. To see whether Bing really was stealing Google's results , Google hand-coded arbitrary search results for nonsensical query terms. Sure enough, as time went on, these nonsense search items became findable on Bing. Google believes that Microsoft stole the search results by looking over users' shoulders both with the Internet Explorer browser and the Bing browser toolbar. In short, as Google fellow Amit Singhal put it: "Our testing has concluded that Bing is copying Google Web search results."

Bing Director Stefan Weitz danced around the issue, saying, "We do not copy Google's search results. We use multiple signals and approaches in ranking search results. The overarching goal is to do a better job determining the intent of the search so we can provide the most relevant answer to a given query. Opt-in programs like the toolbar help us with clickstream data, one of many input signals we and other search engines use to help rank sites." In other words, yeah, we did look at Google searches and used it to rank sites.

It's the Bill Clinton defense: It all depends on what your definition of "copy" is.

Some anti-Google writers claim that Microsoft wasn't doing anything that wrong. John Simpson, from Consumer Watchdog's Inside Google research team, wrote, "Google's complaint is the height of hypocrisy. The company's entire business model is built on the use of other people's content usually without bothering to seek permission."

To which I can only reply, "Welcome to the wonderful world of search engines." That's what any search engine does.

To do it well, of course, a search engine needs unfettered access to the Web and its myriad contents. That's pretty much the way things are here in the U.S., where we may debate privacy rights, but not the idea that a newspaper article published on an open Web site without a paywall should be searchable.

Things are developing differently in Europe, where there is a growing demand for a "right to be forgotten" on the Internet .

This is more than just having the right to, say, delete from your Facebook page a photo of you drunk with a stripper. No, it's the "right" to demand that everything about you reported anywhere on the Web should be deleted and that no search engine records be kept to show that you were ever there in the first place.

For example, Spain recently ruled in favor of plaintiffs in a lawsuit and demanded that Google remove 90 links to newspaper articles and information from public records because they showed the plaintiffs in a bad light. As an American, I find this idea almost incomprehensible. Not let people search for information in the public record? Amazing.

It's not just Europe, of course. China routinely censors Internet searches. Other countries restrict searches in other ways. And Egypt recently tried to solve the problem of people sharing information over the Internet in the crudest possible way, by trying to turn the Internet off.

While that last one didn't work, the others do.

How many people actually think about, never mind question, the results they get from search engines? Yes, search engines are incredibly useful. I've been using them since their very early days in such restricted forms as NASA RECON, OCLC and Dialog in the '70s, and I'm not about to stop. But then, as now, I didn't implicitly trust what I found. I thought about not just how to search effectively, but who's running the site, what bias they may have, what information they may or may not be allowed to display, and who's controlling the Internet between me and the search engines.

The truth may be out there, but don't think for a minute that it's only a one-word search away. It's not.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com .

Read more about internet search in Computerworld's Internet Search Topic Center.

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