Are the search engine wars back?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s large web-based search engines fiercely competed for the market share. The big names of that period, such as Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Northern Light, and AltaVista, completely faded from the collective memory, and Google emerged as the sole victor.

Google offered at least two advantages: a simple user interface clean of excessive advertising and search results clean of promoted links. Google also came up with an effective business model for a search engine.

A decade later Microsoft challenged the king of the search with Bing.

The fuss started in June last year when Google introduced changes to their classic look and feel: background graphics, left side bar toolbox, new image search results display… The problem was that the users immediately noticed how similar to Bing these “novelties” are.

Then this week Google punched directly back. This is how the sting operation worked:

  1. A meaningless string – “mbzrxpgjys” – is submitted as a query in Bing. Initially Bing does not show any search results.
  2. The same meaningless string is then manually associated with a webpage – RIM’s home page – in the Google’s index. However, the RIM’s homepage does not contain the string “mbzrxpgjys”. If Bing indexed the RIM’s home page, it did not find “mbzrxpgjys” and it could have not associated it with the RIM’s home page. This is why Bing initially shows no search results for “mbzrxpgjys”, but Google does.
  3. However, after a while, Bing starts showing the RIM’s home page for “mbzrxpgjys” just like Google.

The conclusion? Well, according to Google: Bing copied Google’s search results.

Hmm… This claim is perplexing: what does it exactly mean? One way to interpret this is that Bing copies Google’s ranking. This does not seem to be true – not even judging from the examples provided by Google. Another way to understand this is that Bing does not use its own index, but rather displays Google’s search results. This also does not seem to be the case, since results seem to be fairly diverse.

What this claim really seems to mean is that Google is panicking. This Google’s claim reminds me of those high school dorks that complained to teachers that the guy next to them is copying their test. – They worked so hard while the cool guys partied. Why would the cool guys now profit from their hard work? In my high school these disputes were quickly resolved with some bitch slapping in the school yard – and guess who always won.

It doesn’t seem likely that the dork strategy will work well for Google either. The Google guys seem somehow less and less cool. They also seem currently to be into picking fights everywhere.

And now Bing strikes back: Google manipulated Bing search results through a type of attack also known as click fraud. This means that Bing is now accusing Google of artificially creating a click stream pretending that they are Bing consumers, in order to trick Bing into believing that some webpages, such as the RIM’s home page, should be in Bing’s index, even if it does not make any sense to the indexing algorithms.

Google’s lashing out certainly created a lot of buzz, but judging from the current responses, it seems rather that a dork is getting bitch-slapped in the school yard again. For us, the spectators, this could mean that the search engine wars are coming back. The outcome of the previous round was that the search user experience drastically improved. Let’s hope for the similar outcome again. In any case, judging from the current skirmishes, we can expect a good show.

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