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Search Engine Wars Go Public
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 it to say that 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 their
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 the 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 they 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, as 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 their user base.

If you don't like the conversation, change it
Every major search engine states they have hundreds of ranking signals. Google has
built their entire business on the black box that is the Page Rank algorithm. Last week,
Google went to the press to state they 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 them 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

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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.


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