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Spy Games - Search Engine Wars Go Public

  |  February 3, 2011   |  Comments

But what is the impact on advertisers?

Search advertising has always had a little 007 to it. The space talks of white hat and black hat tacticians. Cloaking is a common practice, as is conquesting. Clearly, the space fancies itself to be more covert than most. Never has that been truer than the breaking news of Tuesday. Originally covered by Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, Google provided detailed records showing an orchestrated sting operation to prove Bing was copying its results.

This news broke hours before Matt Cutts, a Google engineer and head of Google's Webspam team, was to take the stage alongside Bing at a Bing-sponsored event to discuss the future of the space. Suffice to say, the news of the day was a more pressing topic than where the space was going in the conversation that took place. What followed this event was a search engine Twitter fight between Mr. Cutts and counterparts at Bing that can be seen relived via TechCrunch.

Avoiding the morals of the story, there appears to be three unspoken, to date, points for advertisers to keep in mind when determining future plans:

Google Is the Measuring Stick

For the better part of the last decade, search starts and ends with Google. The public transformation of Google to a verb and the governmental exploration of a monopoly are both founded off the basis that Google is the defining entity in the search space. It would stand to reason that when measuring evolution, any search vendor will analyze its results against those of Google. A former engineer with the search engine Ask once recounted how they used to run internal evaluations of their search results against Google. Over time, Google started to serve up dummy results to prevent this kind of benchmarking - similar to what was done in this current "sting" operation with Bing. Using clean IPs they were able to do field surveys of satisfaction and found that the single biggest determinant of satisfaction was the Google logo on the page. When the logo was removed, the results swung to neutral or favored Ask. When the logo moved to the Ask page, the satisfaction went way up.

That said, it should come as no surprise that Bing is using Google as a factor in rankings. The primary basis for the Yahoo deal from Microsoft's side was to gain market share in order to own more data and provide better performance. In absence of that data, using consumer information from Google results would have been a logical reference point.

Text Search Results Are Just Table Stakes

Google's contention, that in six or seven of 100 examples, it found Bing's results to be stale copies, is meaningful - if you believe that the future of search is flat, blue linked pages. GroupM Search, in recently-completed research with comScore, found that brand infidelity is a growing challenge for search engines. Google today has nearly 70 percent market share; yet in the research we conducted, the user percentage (not query share) was less than 50 percent with Yahoo and Bing much higher than their typical market shares by query volume. When studying the young male audience, a segment who does more of everything online, these trends were further amplified.

The reality in this whole dust-up is that no one, be it Bing, Blekko, or any other engine, is going to win on table stakes. Users switch engines when they are dissatisfied with what they are finding on their primary engine. More people use Google for multiple queries then bounce to Yahoo or Bing when they want a different opinion. This was the pitch to advertisers when Bing launched, and little has changed in consumer behavior. This reality is important because if all of this is to mean that "Bing is now Google," as Mr. Sullivan joked, then consumers would have little reason to switch. What hasn't been manifested in any of the sting data is a keyword that likely draws more than 10 queries annually. The reason, most likely, is that Bing is differentiating via Facebook and other implementations to stand out on the items that matter to its user base.

If You Don't Like the Conversation, Change It

Every major search engine states it has hundreds of ranking signals. Google has built its entire business on the black box that is the PageRank algorithm. Last week, Google went to the press to state it would be cracking down on duplicate content and the farms that cultivate them. This was not so subtlety timed for the day after online media company Demand Media had a highly successful first day on Wall Street. Demand Media has been called into question for deriving much of its revenue from its strategic approach to content development and inclusion in the Google rankings. And now, Google follows that with this presentation of copying, cheating, and stealing, directed at Bing.

Not surprisingly, no one has spent the week engaged in the conversation that dominated the last two months in the search space - is Google slipping? Columns, like this one from Coding Horror, flooded the Web in late December and into January about the continued decline of the Google results. Similar conversations are not happening today as a result of the offensive position being played by Google. While this may be a smart PR move, it does not represent innovation and differentiation.

Also of note, as an upstart (and Bing falls into this category), despite Microsoft’s deep pockets, one of the true signs of competition is when the leader starts fighting with you instead of you picking the fight. Steve Ballmer and Microsoft have been very aggressive in their declarations of war against Google in the search space and beyond. To see Google publicly fight over this and keep picking at the issue via Twitter and blogs is a bit startling and very unlike the Mountain View giant. It could be read as Google acknowledging Bing more so than ever before and trying to take the company out at the knees.

So, What Is the Advertiser Impact?

Search is a consumer first business. In the case of content farms, the motivations of Google are to improve the consumer experience. In the case of bringing to light the potential unlawful duplication, the motivation, it seems, is to shift perception and get consumers thinking that if Bing is just a copy, then why bother. Historically, that has meant little to consumers as they still go between Bing and Yahoo, and those results are now copies, by and large. What matters to consumers is the rapid evolution going on in search results that include multiple media formats, personal social graphs, and a richer overall experience that delivers better outcomes and easier decision making. This "one copying another" dust up is not about any of that.

For advertisers, the impact of this dust up is minimal in the short term. Questions could be raised about Bing having enough engineering resources to truly compete, but the areas of focus have been on bigger opportunities than random character combinations as described by Google in this situation. The real impact could happen if Bing saw public perception change and a drop in market share. However, that is highly doubtful as this feud will likely not get so high profile that it reaches the general public’s consciousness.

In the end, we have a renewed shouting match between two of the industry's leading influencers. If it leads to better innovation and development around experience and ad formats, then everyone will root for more of it. Otherwise, it is Cold War posturing, which makes for a great Tom Clancy-like thriller, but little else of substance.



Chris Copeland

Chris Copeland is chief executive officer of GroupM Next.

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