In the last few days, a pretty harsh debate emerged on the internet over allegations that Microsoft’s search engine Bing was copying Google’s results for several particular queries.
According to Danny Sullivan’s recap over at Search Engine Land, Google ran a “sting operation” by tweaking its own code in order to allow for manual ranking of certain terms. About 100 “synthetic searches” were created: 100 queries that regular people wouldn’t normally type into Google’s search box.
It turns out the Bing is not copying and that it improves its own results based on the browsing activity of Internet Explorer’s users. (Also, it turns out that the vast majority of the fake searches didn’t make it to the Bing rankings.) Although this episode might look like a minor one, it speaks a lot about the likely developments of the search engine market. Kara Swisher claims this marks the beginning of the new Larry Page era at Google. True or not, the slash on Bing – far from merely being a nasty controversy among competitors – is a sign that search wars are heating up.
How will such contentious environment affect tech policy? It is clear now that regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are turning their eye to search. The combination of regulatory activism and animosity among competitors is one we’ve seen before. What’s funny here is that not only smaller players are complaining: the market leader is. It’s hardly a healthy industry one where firms will rather compete in court than in the marketplace.
And what are the issues at stake? The Next Digital Decade (by the way, a very important book which I plan to discuss more extensively in future MediaLaws instalments) offers a good starting point. In chapter 7, Frank Pasquale, Geoffrey A. Manne, James Grimmelmann, and Eric Goldman deal with the characterization of search as an “essential facility” – a notion originated in competition law – and the call for “search neutrality”. This is just the beginning of a debate that we will all have to engage.