"Hiybbprqag?" How Google Tripped Up Microsoft

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Hiybbprqag?

It's not the sort of word that easily trips off the tongue. In fact, it's not a word at all - but to Google, it was key to a sting operation it carried out to back up its claim that Microsoft had been surreptitiously copying search results.

Google said its initial suspicions were raised last summer when its engineers reviewed search returns for a misspelling of a surgical procedure on eyelids called tarsorrhaphy. Google's Amit Singhal, who has apparently been charged with leading the public relations prosecution of Microsoft, has a piece up this morning where he recounts the blow-by-blow:

He said that Google returned the correct spelling--tarsorrhaphy-- along results for the corrected query. "At that time, Bing had no results for the misspelling," he wrote. But by the late summer, Singhal maintains that Bing "started returning our first result to their users without offering the spell correction. This was very strange. How could they return our first result to their users without the correct spelling? Had they known the correct spelling, they could have returned several more relevant results for the corrected query."

Google claims to have found other instances of URLs from its search results that also found their way into Microsoft's Bing - including "search results that we would consider mistakes of our algorithms started showing up on Bing."

We couldn't shake the feeling that something was going on, and our suspicions became much stronger in late October 2010 when we noticed a significant increase in how often Google's top search result appeared at the top of Bing's ranking for a variety of queries. This statistical pattern was too striking to ignore. To test our hypothesis, we needed an experiment to determine whether Microsoft was really using Google's search results in Bing's ranking.

That set in motion a sting operation where "hiybbprqag" and other nonsensical search queries that nobody would be expected to type in came into play.

To be clear, the synthetic query had no relationship with the inserted result we chose--the query didn't appear on the webpage, and there were no links to the webpage with that query phrase. In other words, there was absolutely no reason for any search engine to return that webpage for that synthetic query. You can think of the synthetic queries with inserted results as the search engine equivalent of marked bills in a bank.

We gave 20 of our engineers laptops with a fresh install of Microsoft Windows running Internet Explorer 8 with Bing Toolbar installed. As part of the install process, we opted in to the "Suggested Sites" feature of IE8, and we accepted the default options for the Bing Toolbar.

We asked these engineers to enter the synthetic queries into the search box on the Google home page, and click on the results, i.e., the results we inserted. We were surprised that within a couple weeks of starting this experiment, our inserted results started appearing in Bing. Below is an example: a search for [hiybbprqag] on Bing returned a page about seating at a theater in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, Microsoft "rejected Google's allegations. But this latest public recounting by Google is designed to turn up the heat on its arch-rival. There's a bigger context. If you step back from the he-said, she-said narrative, it's also clear that Bing, a relative late-comer to search, is starting to command Google's attention - if not concern. My ZDNet colleague Larry Dignan published a good analysis of the affair this morning, where he correctly notes that Google wouldn't care very much whether its public results were being used if it wasn't concerned about Bing.

Whether any of this will matter to the tens of millions of people who use Internet search engines every day is another question. But it's making for great theater in the meantime.

Microsoft Responds Again to Google
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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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