The Strange Populist Outrage Against Google

The debate over the great 2011 clickstream controversy has played out in phases that seem hilariously obvious in retrospect. First, outrage combined with confusion over what exactly happened. Then, a rebuttal replete with generalities that only hints at an explanation. Third, a less outraged rebuttal to that rebuttal, that strangely waits to the last paragraph to make its point. And now, a populist revolt against the original Google claim, pointing out perceived hypocrisy in Google’s position.

Let’s look back at the facts, ignoring the rhetoric for now:

  • Google suspected Bing of stealing its search results, and conducted some experiments. In a trial of 100 search terms, they were able to prove that Bing did somehow manage to copy Google results in seven (out of 100) cases.
  • Google posited that clickstream data from IE or Bing Toolbar was causing this to happen. That is, users who opted in to share their data anonymously with Microsoft were sending back data on what they typed, which sites they visited, and what they clicked on. One website is often Google, and so Google results were effectively brought into the Bing search algorithm.
  • Harry Shum of Bing more or less verifies that this is what happened in his blog post and appearance yesterday morning.

So Bing is effectively using some Google results in its search engine. It’s not direct copying, but the effect is the same. This is certainly wrong, though it’s not outright “cheating” as was originally posited. Bing is using the fruits of the core offering of its direct competitor to make its own core offering better. Bing should immediately blacklist any clickstream data coming from Google. It’s just that simple.

But it’s not that simple, because the current populist revolt against Google seems to believe that Google has no right to be upset. The thinking goes: Google uses the the Web’s shared work, so they have no right to cry foul when Bing uses their search results. This is all part of the game!

That position is even more indefensible than Bing’s. Search engines provide a service to users: their own unique take on what links should be presented to a user based on a search phrase. Providing value on top of existing work is a legitimate way to do business. That’s what Google, and all search engines, do. It is not legitimate, however, to take existing work and simply pass it off as your own. That’s what Bing is doing, even though it was unintentional.

Journalists translate events into words. If Journalist A takes Journalist B’s reporting on a certain event and passes it off as his own without citation, we’d all agree that would be wrong. Even if Journalist A didn’t know he was copying work, it would still be wrong. And we don’t fault journalists for observing the world as it is and profiting off the reporting of that world.

Bing is using work done by Google’s core offering for its own core offering. That’s wrong and needs to stop.

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