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Microsoft Collects Google's Search Data for Bing

Microsoft admitted to copying search information in response to complaints from No. 1 search giant Google.

Google laid out its accusations in a blog post on Tuesday, accusing Microsoft of harvesting search results and clickstream data from Google searches conducted using Internet Explorer 8. The data are being used to improve Microsoft's Bing search engine query results, Google alleged.

Google set a "honeypot" trap, using obscure search terms and mismatched search results to see if Bing would mimic the results. The tests conducted by Google's personnel showed that the obscure terms and search results soon turned up on Bing searches. Google described Microsoft's use of the data in Bing as a "cheap imitation" of the Google search engine.

Google's allegation comes as a panel discussion on search technologies kicks off in San Francisco during a Big Think event, as noted by a Microsoft blogger. Microsoft's direct response to Google's accusations came from Harry Shum, Ph.D., corporate vice president of Bing at Microsoft, who noted the timing of Google's accusation at the event and said that Microsoft does indeed use clickstream data from Internet Explorer 8. Microsoft gathers that information from users opting-in to share the data.

Shum said that Google's blog description "doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience."

Google's testers all used Internet Explorer 8 with the Bing toolbar and Suggested Sites feature turned on. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 end user agreement (EULA) indicates that those two elements will send information back to Microsoft if users opt in to allow the sharing, according to an article on the Google tests published by Search Engine Land.

Google wants Microsoft to cease harvesting search results and clickstream data from Google searches using Internet Explorer 8. Google's blog put it this way: "And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we'd like for this practice to stop."

Shum didn't budge, saying that "we all learn from our collective customers, and we all should."

Microsoft has been open about harvesting search data in this way through Internet Explorer for years, according to an article by Matt Rosoff, formerly an analyst at the Directions on Microsoft consultancy. He cited a July 2009 Directions on Microsoft article describing that practice. However, accessing this article requires a having a subscription in place with the analyst firm (update: the article is now publicly accessible here).

It seems doubtful that individual users of Internet Explorer would be aware of Microsoft's search data collection practices, either from Microsoft's EULA or some report available only to subscribers. Rosoff suggested people probably wouldn't care.

However, this discussion of data harvesting through IE 8 does contain a somewhat jarring note, especially as Microsoft makes the case of preventing third parties from harvesting clickstream data from Internet Explorer 9 use. In December, Microsoft announced a new tracking protection feature to come in IE 9 that will allow users to sidestep the monitoring of their online behavior by advertisers.

This tracking protection feature will require an opt-in by users and it will depend on the use of lists of URLs to block unwanted advertiser scrutiny. Microsoft may be planning to announce the release candidate version of IE 9, currently at beta, on February 10, and possibly we'll see the new feature's debut at that time.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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