If you’ve missed it, there’s practically been a spy novel written over the past couple of days about Bing copying Google’s search results. The whole thing started with a novella by Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, which related the tale of Google’s honeypot trap to catch Bing in the act of copying its search results. Ever since, the two companies have been battling it out in public, accusing and denying, in blog posts, tweetsand more blog posts, but one question still remains – what now?
Even if the move wasn’t intentional on Microsoft’s end, the end result is the same – Bing search results that more closely mirror Google’s search results. One ex-Googler has some thoughts on how this can change how Google approaches search, which he shared earlier today on Q&A site Quora.
The Short Version
First, if you’re in the mood for a great but long read, take a look at Danny Sullivan’s story that broke open the whole debacle. There’s mystery, there’s intrigue and there are diagrams. The long and short of it is that Google started making up “words” that no one would actually search for – “hiybbprqag” for example – and then linking them to unrelated results. The gotcha moment came when Google engineers searched Bing for those “words” (after weeks of using Internet Explorer, searching for those “words”) and came up with those same results.
In other words, Bing was coming up with search results for something that only Googlers were searching for using Google on Internet Explorer. (If you’ve seen The Departed, it’s very much like the envelope that outs the rat.) Internet Explorer and the Bing toolbar had been collecting anonymous click data and, according to Bing, this data was one of more than “1,000 different signals and features in [its] ranking algorithm.” So, it wasn’t that Bing was directly copying results, said Microsoft, but that it was taking click data into account. Ever since Sullivan’s post, the two companies have been going at it – and that’s the very short version of it all.
Edmond Lau, formerly a part of the search team at Google, says that “the result of this discovery will be to diminish Google’s incentive to innovate in vanilla search quality ranking and to increase its efforts on other differentiating search features.”
Lau points out that, unless Google has a legal argument against Bing’s usage of click data, Microsoft will likely continue with the practice. Over time, he posits, Bings search results will likely move closer to Google’s, taking away a key incentive on Google’s end to innovate its search product.
“Any new innovations in ranking by Google could in theory quickly become assimilated into Bing’s search results, reducing Google’s incentive to innovate in the ranking space,” writes Lau. “Therefore, in order to maintain its competitive edge, Google will need to both try to reduce Bing’s ability to copy its results, and it will need to significantly increase its efforts on other important areas in the search experience outside of ranking.”
What’s Google’s Next Move?
Lau suggests that Google has two possible moves at this point. First, it can give Bing toolbar users worse results by “[dropping] a misspelling here or an optimization there,” thereby giving undermining Bing’s efforts and giving it only “medium-quality” results to copy. The second option, he says, is for Google to “focus more on non-ranking related improvements,” such as snippet quality, metadata extraction like IMDB data at the top of search results, query refinements such as localized results and search suggestions, more relevant ads and a better integration of universal search. In other words, Google can focus on all the neat information and context that surrounds mere search results.
“Not all is lost for Google even though Bing may be hijacking its results,” writes Lau. “Months after the summer of 2010, when Google figured that Bing had copied some of its results for the misspelled query [torsoraphy], it’s clear that Google still understands the web much better than Bing does. [...]Bing’s top result doesn’t have the spell-corrected query highlighted because Bing still isn’t able to connect the dots between the misspelled and corrected query. I’m not too worried for Google web search.”
What do you think? Would Google lower the quality on some search results just to keep Bing from copying it? From what we’ve read, information is not collected by the Bing toolbar alone, but by Internet Explorer use, as well, which makes up a majority of Web browsers worldwide. It seems like lowering the quality of your search results to a majority of users worldwide simply to stop someone from copying your answers would be counterproductive. Instead, we’re willing to bet that Google continues, as it has, to focus on enhancing all of these “non-ranking related improvements.” Google is continually pushing to make search results more customized to the individual user, according to previous search results, social context, location, and more. Is this the type of thing that could be simply copied by click data? We’re not so sure.
In what’s become an annual tradition, over December ReadWriteWeb will present our ‘best of’ posts for 2009. These are a series of articles that will examine the top web products in categories ranging from consumer web apps to RSS and syndication platforms. Today, we’re kicking off the series with a look at the top mobile web products of the past year. This is a subjective list of editorially selected products, but one which includes some of the biggest names in mobile web applications for 2009.
Facebook 3.0 (iPhone)
Although Facebook is an application available on many different mobile platforms, none can hold a candle to the iPhone version, updated this summer to version 3.0. The latest mobile version of this must-have social networking application was so good, some even proclaimed that it was more useful and more usable than the Facebook website itself.
Designed by engineer Joe Hewitt (who later controversially declared he quit developing it and all other iPhone applications), Facebook 3.0 for the iPhone didn’t just deliver a new way to socialize while on the go, but essentially became a portable “little black book” keeping you connected to your friends, events, and communication streams.
For those who don’t spend their days behind a computer screen, the new app also made Facebook a more useful service, allowing you to quickly browse and upload photos or videos (the latter if you have the iPhone 3GS). Finally, the simplified layout, which displays just 9 buttons in a grid-like pattern is a testament to good user design, boiling down the complexity of Facebook to one easy-to-use interface that even the newest of mobile users can understand.
If any application deserves an “app of the year” award, it’s Facebook 3.0 for iPhone.
Tweetie 2 (iPhone)
Another popular application for the iPhone was this year’s revision to the Tweetie application. This “update” was actually a complete reworking of the app which introduced so many new features that the developer, Loren Brichter, decided to release it as an entirely separate application which costs the same as the original. This decision, in turn, led to a vicious backlash of complaints as Tweetie users whined that they now had to “pay twice” for the application. The claims for the most part were just ridiculous – the $2.99 price point was hardly a burden and no one was “paying twice” – you were buying a brand-new application. However, the debate highlighted some of the issues Apple has with upgrade pricing – that is, “no paid updates” are permitted. That left Brichter with no other choice to recoup on his investment of time and energy that went into the building of Tweetie 2.0 but by charging again for the new version.
In the end, after the outcry died down, most everyone just forked over the piddling amount to get the new app which introduced features like video tweets, offline mode, geolocation, and more. And nearly all are happier for doing so, too.
It’s hard to not favor the iPhone in this list given the 100,000 apps now available for the platform, but Android apps deserve a mention too. Among the apps installed first by new owners of Android smartphones is Twidroid, the popular Android Twitter client. This mobile application has improved over time and now offers a clean and easy-to-use interface where the most frequently used features (@Mentions, Direct Messages, etc.) are accessible via buttons available at the bottom of the app, no matter which screen you’re viewing.
An updated version just launched today, now takes this application to a whole new level with its brand-new plugin architecture. Thanks to this feature, third-party developers can now extend Twidroid with their own services. This changes the application from being just another Twitter client representing one company’s point of view as to what features it should offer to being an app that’s completely customizable and tailored precisely to an end user’s needs. In fact, it was this last minute year-end update forced us to add Twidroid to the list – apps that support plugins may very well be the next big thing for mobile.
Last year, we thought the mobile social network to beat was Brightkite. While we still like that service, there’s no doubt that Foursquare is this year’s location-based breakout hit. At the beginning of 2009, the service was limited to only a handful of cities, but lately, that list has been expanding quickly to include a number of new cities worldwide.
Essentially, this geolocation-based service turns mobile social networking into a game. You “check in” as you arrive at new places in return for points, prizes, badges, and the honor of becoming the “mayor” of a place if you’re the one with the most check-ins there. Additionally, Foursquare users can leave tips for others arriving to that locale so when they check in, they can see recommendations – like the best entree at the restaurant or where the nearest Starbucks is to that hotel, for example.
Some may claim that Foursquare’s influence is still limited to the early adopter tech set for now and hasn’t really become a mainstream hit just yet. Maybe that’s true to a point, but considering the service just got a shout-out on The Simpsons not too long ago, we think Foursquare’s days of being an “undiscovered gem” are limited.
Google Voice (Blackberry, Android)
Perhaps most notable for prompting an FCC investigation into Apple’s secretive app approval process, Google Voice is one of the year’s best mobile applications even if it’s not available on the iPhone. According to Google, Apple rejected the app from the iTunes Store because it duplicated the iPhone’s core functionality. Meanwhile, Apple claimed they were “still reviewing” the application because it alters the iPhone’s functionality and user interface. The general consensus is that Apple isn’t exactly being forthcoming here. A slew of other applications already available in the App Store “duplicate” the iPhone’s functionality in some way, making Apple’s rejection more suspicious.
As of now, Google Voice is still not available in the App Store. However, Blackberry and Android users are able to take advantage of this innovative mobile app which lets you set where your phone numbers should ring to while also aggregating your voicemail from all your different lines. Those messages are then transcribed and emailed and/or SMS’d to you. Via the mobile application, your outgoing calls appear to be coming from your Google Voice number and not the number assigned to your handheld. This mobile app is so popular that it alone has caused some high-profile users to make the switch from the iPhone to Android.