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In one sense, Danny Sullivan publishing a story about Google accusing Bing of copying their search results on the eve of the Future of Search event that Bing is co-sponsoring that derailed the entire discussion on search quality and became a running joke throughout the full event - without giving Bing time to give a full response - is perfectly innocent. Google pitched the story to him the previous week but he didn't have time to get a briefing earlier so he ended up writing just before the event.

When you have a good story that you want to tell, from a good source, you want to publish. You might get scooped, you want credit for breaking news, there's even an element of excitement in getting the story and putting it straight out. There's a reason it's called breaking news.

But that's not why Sullivan says he posted when he did. He seems to be saying he posted straight away because Google wanted him to. "Yes, they wanted the news to be out before the Bing event happened — an event that Google is participating in. They felt it was important for the overall discussion about search quality." They didn't feel it was important for the overall discussion right after they did their experiment (which Shum calls a form of clickfraud; the gloves are off in this argument), which gave them results on Bing at the end of December; Google didn't offer Sullivan a story on what they called search relevancy until January 13th. And they didn't approach Microsoft to ask what was going on; they went straight for the publicity, right at the time of the Bing-sponsored conference.

And while I agree with Sullivan when he says his site isn't there to do PR for Google or to do PR for Bing, I think he just did do PR for Google by letting the source dictate the timing of the story. And as the executive editor of the New York Times put it just last week when talking about Julian Assange: "The relationship with sources is straightforward: you don’t necessarily endorse their agenda, echo their rhetoric, take anything they say at face value, applaud their methods or, most important, allow them to shape or censor your journalism. Your obligation, as an independent news organization, is to verify the material, to supply context, to exercise responsible judgment about what to publish and what not to publish and to make sense of it."

(And no, I don't think it's the same as taking information under an NDA - NDAs say I can't write about the topic before a certain date but don't force me to publish as soon as I can , although they do encourage it).

By serving the agenda of the source, you miss some of what the story could be. I've lambasted Microsoft for not joining the conversation by giving comment on some stories, but you have to be realistic. When you ask for comment on a big, controversial story on a day when some of the senior people in the team you're asking for comment are preparing for a big event and it's not something they already have a view on, you're probably not going to get a very detailed reply. I've asked fairly complex technical questions that have taken weeks working with the developer to get an answer on, because they literally didn't know what was happening. Unless this was a Sekrit Bing Plot All Along*, (in which case I'd expect there to be been a plausible denial on file ready to deploy), someone at Bing is going to have to look at the claims, find out what's happening inside the engine, find out why it's happening and decide what the policy is on that and what to say about it. And they have to work around whatever they had scheduled for that day, which just happens to be the day before the event when they're likely to be pretty busy preparing from.

That's pretty much what Sullivan seems to be saying happened. "Bing was allowed to have as much input as they wanted. I contacted them early on Monday morning, when I started working on this. I received a reply around 3pm Pacific, which I included in this article. That’s all they wanted to provide... I went out of my way to follow up even though I’d already been given a statement... [the spokesperson] said it was likely they’d have more to say when I see them after the event today."

If Sullivan had waited to post, with Bing's flat denial (kudos to Mary Jo Foley for getting an unambiguous quote to go with the explanation) and the extra details from Harry Shum's post, the article might have been less punchy (it wouldn't have had the line 'Bing doesn't deny this' in the first paragraph) but it would have been better journalism.

Would it have been a letdown after the Farsight event? Hard to say because without the article the discussion at the event would have been entirely different; the stories might have been about what search engines can do in the future rather than whether they're playing fair right now. I think a 'did they cheat' article would have had as much impact after the event - but it wouldn't have given Google the same level of exposure for the accusations and it wouldn't have turned an event that Bing had sponsored as an open forum for many different companies in the search arena into an open sparring match. This is pretty much journalism as spectator sport, and I like to think our profession is better than this.



* On balance, I don't think Bing was deliberately taking search results from Google; I've met enough Bing folks to believe that they they're smart enough to know that if they did that, they would get found out sooner or later and they'd face exactly this kind of backlash. I think they're getting those results from Google exactly the way they say they are; by mining user data, and no-one ever thought to go in and censor the Google search strings in there. Maybe they should have. (Maybe Google should filter out a lot more of the content spam sites that make money from Google ads before they get complaints about them rather than waiting until the results are so polluted that people complain; everyone is making a judgement call on these issues). I agree with Shum; Google uses user data (like the content of your email in Gmail) to apply ads, the Google toolbar has a long EULA just like the Bing bar and the IE 8 suggested sites feature - and as I've said a lot recently, when the service is free the users are part of the product being sold. Bing is trying to get better search results by looking at the pages real people visit - I wonder if the reason that only 7-9 out of 100 honeypot terms made it into Bing is something to do with the behaviour of the Googlers baiting the sting? - and real people use both engines. Maybe what the 'sting' actually reveals is that search results have a massive influence on where we go on the Web, and that is the point at which the search engines needs to take responsibility for the results they provide.

Comments

(Anonymous)
18th Mar, 2011 13:17 (UTC)
Sullivan's timing
Nice to see another reasoned view of this issue; there's something ever so slightly hypocritical about Google's claim that taking the way users rate the importance of information on another site as one ranking factor among many amounts to cheating. It might have been a mistake on Bing's part, but it shouldn't have diverted so much attention from Google's issues.

I'm not sure Sullivan is saying that he posted immediately 'because Google wanted him to', though. I read that section as his admission that Google had been manipulative in holding onto the information until so close to the conference, but that they had offered to talk early enough that his article could have been out a week sooner if his own schedule had been clearer; that Google hadn't insisted on a schedule that gave Bing so little time to respond. Maybe Sullivan should have waited before posting, as you say, but it doesn't sound like Google 'forced him to publish as soon as possible', unless you're reading more between the lines.

Btw, your Twitter posts are interesting; hope you don't mind if I follow you there. ;)

~ Rose at Intelligent Retail (http://www.facebook.com/intelligentretail)
marypcb
21st Apr, 2011 16:46 (UTC)
Re: Sullivan's timing
sorry not to have found this in my comment queue before; so much spam! I chatted with Danny about this and he doesn't feel Google explicitly forced him to publish that close to the event, but it's pretty clear Google wanted to have the article out before the event and to steer the conversation away from the issue of spam in search results - which they certainly managed! In general, Google didn't come out of the whole thing looking anything other than what I feel I have to call petulant...

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