Did Bing get busted copying Google?

This is truly a sting operation for the Information Age. Google makes up a word (e.g. hiybbprqag) and temporarily rigs its search engine to point that word at a real but obviously irrelevant site (a seating chart for the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles). A few weeks later, when you enter hiybbprqag into Microsoft’s Bing search engine, you get this:

Open-and-shut case, right?

No such thing. I won’t rehearse all the furious, mind-churning debates that have ensued. For my money the best real-time analysis has come from Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, here and then a few days later here. If you want to sample more, an efficient way to track the conversation is now—ready for some irony?—to google (or bing) the word hiybbprqag.

Bing would never have noticed these nonsense words without a bit of help, so Google provided the help. A gaggle of engineers (about 20) began typing away on laptops loaded with Windows and the Bing toolbar, set to send Microsoft data on “Suggested Sites.” The engineers googled hiybbprqag. Then they clicked on the link to the Wiltern seating chart. And so on. In the fullness of time, Bing could hardly help but associate the otherwise nonexistent hiybbprqag with the Wiltern.

I believe we have something important to learn from this affair, but not so much about the relative ethics of the people at Microsoft and Google. It’s time to learn a lesson about the surfstream. We define the surfstream as the aggregate of everybody’s clickstream. The clickstream is everything, more or less, that you type. The gaggle of Googlers typing hiybbprqag made one fleeting, minuscule contribution to the surfstream. A drop in the ocean.

One chunk of the surfstream is the aggregate of people’s searches on Google. It’s a big and valuable and informative chunk, and you can see why Google would resent Microsoft’s making use of it, even if Google itself monitors clickstream data through its own toolbar. Is Microsoft looking over Google’s shoulders? Indirectly, yes, but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s looking over our shoulders. It is watching Internet users, en masse—everyone, that is, who breezes through this innocent-looking dialog box:

So now what? We know this much: the surfstream represents a formidable treasure of information: the choices and habits and Internet lives of the world. It’s not just what we do but how and in what sequence we do it. What these great companies will learn from the information, and how they will manage to use it, we are only beginning to glimpse.


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