Microsoft Live Search Suggestions Stealing Google Queries? Or is it Firefox?

I gave a presentation on duplicate content at Pubcon yesterday. The panel I was on was well received, and Barry Schwartz covered the session at Search Engine Round Table: Duplicate Content Issues (Yahoo & Google). Joe Duck also has some thoughts about the session: Pubcon Las Vegas – Duplicate Content Session with Google and Yahoo. I’ve had a chance to meet some new folks, and say hello to some old friends. The Conference has been a real pleasure so far.

Predictive Searches

A new patent application from Microsoft describes a process that sounds very much like how Google Suggest works.

It presents suggestions for alternative queries as someone is typing a search term into a search box, much like the process I described in a post this last December titled Can Google Read Your Mind? Processing Predictive Queries.

But there’s an odd twist to it.

Stolen Google Queries

You can see query suggestions in action at Microsoft’s Windows Live search (now Bing), and when I tried a few minutes ago, I was surprised by the suggested terms I saw. I can’t recall the last time I used Microsoft’s search on my laptop, but it’s definitely been a while. As I started entering a term into Window’s Live Search, query terms I used in Google started appearing. A couple of those terms were from earlier today, and more of them were from months ago.

Some information about the patent application:

System and method for automatic generation of suggested inline search terms

Invented by James Dai
Assigned to Microsoft Corporation
US Patent Application 20060259479
Published November 16, 2006
Filed: May 12, 2005

Abstract

A system and related techniques detect the initiation of a user’s search input and monitor that input character-by-character, to generate suggested search terms on the fly.

Arbitration logic may monitor the user’s keyboard of other entry of search or query terms at a Web search site or other search engine or resource, and examine that input along with stored query history or usage data on a real-time basis to predict or infer search terms which the user is attempting to transmit. Spelling corrections may likewise be made.

According to embodiments, the arbitration logic and/or query history or usage data may be hosted in the user’s machine, in the search service itself or in other resources. As the arbitration logic generates suggested search terms in inline fashion, those search suggestions may be presented to the user in real-time, for example by way of a wordwheel, drop-down or other dialog or interface.

The user may for example choose to select one of the set of search suggestions before completing the typing or other inputting of their search data, and in embodiments may edit those suggestions in real-time as well.

According to embodiments in a further regard, the user may provide configuration inputs to the automatic inline search suggestion feature, for example to turn that capability on or off on a per-session, per-search, permanent or other basis.

One of the areas that the patent mentions it looks to for suggestions was “query history.” For some reason, I expected “query history” to be something that would be unique to the individual search engine, and that it would only be collected when I was logged on to a personalized search system.

It appears that I’m wrong about having to be signed in for a search engine to track query history. And I also appear to be wrong in that the query history collected would be unique to a search engine.

As I note above, Microsoft Live suggested my Google queries. Would it work the other way around?

Transferable Query History?

I performed a search in Windows Live for a term that I don’t believe I ever searched for before on a search engine. I then went to Google Suggest, and started typing in the first couple of letters of the that word to see if it would suggest my Windows Live search term.

It did.

I was using Firefox (Version 1.5.0.8) when I saw my query history being transferred easily from one search suggestion service to another. I jumped to Internet Explorer, and attempted to replicate my results. It didn’t work. It appears that Firefox maintains a search query history that IE doesn’t. It appears that Firefox has a built in search suggestion feature

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19 thoughts on “Microsoft Live Search Suggestions Stealing Google Queries? Or is it Firefox?”

  1. Hello,
    I found this a fascinating post. My greater curiousity is the market value of gathering queries and making suggestions regarding which query to use. In some ways it reminds me to recent controversies in broadband access – companies that pay to have their content placed on a faster connection have an advantage over companies that can’t afford the cost.
    In this case, I keep track of everything and every way people are asking a question then sell the most used terms — which I’m suggestion to users — to companies for higher prices, etc.
    Nice gig, if you can get it. – Joseph

  2. Hi Joseph,

    The search engines are gathering an incredible amount of data involving what people search for, and how they do it. I wonder, if that information was shared with psychologists and sociologists, what they would make of it.

    I imagine that we won’t discover what search engines are actually doing with some of this information until years from now, when it no longer matters whether it’s a trade secret or not.

    That is a great business model, and knowing what questions people are asking can be pretty important to people to whom those questions may be asked.

    Cheers.

  3. Dear Bill,
    This was a wonderful post. At first, I must say, I thought you were going to announce that MSN and Google were going to do battle with one another over this, but at the last moment, you cleared the whole puzzle up…rather like a mystery writer!

    I had never noticed this, and so appreciate your great eye for this.

    Miriam

  4. Thanks, Miriam.

    It was a mystery, and it had me really puzzled for about twenty minutes or so. I didn’t suspect Firefox would be the culprit behind this theft of privacy. :)

    And I did blame Microsoft at first. I’m just glad that I uncovered the truth before I made a blog post accusing them of something.

    ps. I talked with someone from Google last week about this at Pubcon, who saw the post, and was also interested in seeing the browser doing this.

  5. Thanks, Steve.

    I’ll be installing IE 7 on my laptop over the next few days to test whether it does it or not. If it were Microsoft that was first seen doing this, as opposed to Firefox, I’d imagine that it would be getting a lot more attention.

  6. if I’m not mistaken, you’re just looking at Firefox’s normal autocomplete, and it just so happens that both Google and Live (among other search engines) use the same name (“q”) for the search query box. There’s no magic or stealing, and it’s all client-side.

  7. Hi Michael,

    It’s not the autocomplete that was a standard part of earlier versions of Firefox, according to the Mozilla page that documents it, though that was one of the thoughts that initially ran through my mind.

    The browser preference is titled Browser.search.suggest.enabled. It’s stated purpose is:

    In Firefox 2.0, search plugins can offer “search suggestions” of similar search queries as the user enters a query in the search bar. This preference controls whether or not search suggestions are enabled.

    Google Suggest and Microsoft’s Live.com use an Ajax type function to supply suggested queries.

    There’s more about it in the Mozilla Development Center:

    Supporting search suggestions in search plugins.

    Looks like when this was implemented, there was a bug in it that was causing problems when people tried to disable the search suggestions and revert to traditional form history autocomplete. There’s some discussion in the comments on that page about the reporting of previously searched for terms, and their transmission to the search engine. I’m not completely certain that they are. Any thoughts?

  8. I am afraid that it is just a auto complete function as Michael is pointing out. I installed Firefox, and searched for non-popular search terms and waited for a month, but the results never appeared neither on Live or Yahoo search. It also seems that the suggestions are separated from the autocompleted search terms. They are different.

  9. Live Search and Yahoo copy Google at any point. For example if Google make a webmaster tools so live search and yahoo do it too but with 3 options.
    But about tread I think it’s just firefox

  10. Hi Skyline,

    I think that there are many ideas that flow from one of the search engines to the other, especially when it’s seen as successful.

    It does look like in this instance it was the query history from Firefox…

  11. @William. You are very true. We should all be watching how Microsoft incorporates certain elements into its new search once yahoo search and bing have fully collaborated – as is planned.

  12. Hi Marc,

    This post predates the whole possible merger of Yahoo and Microsoft by a good amount of time, but I agree with you about applying some rational skepticism to what results from such a combining of forces.

    Here the issue was that FireFox maintains a query history that the search engines can tap into, so even though it appeared that Microsoft was possibly accessing information that it shouldn’t have access to, it wasn’t what they were doing that was the core of the mystery.

  13. Hi Bill,

    Do you really think that Microsoft copies Google’s results? Last year there was a stand off between 2 companies when Google accused Bing of copying the results.

  14. Hi Max,

    Microsoft has been using toolbar data collected from users who have the Microsoft toolbar installed. Those toolbar users provide information about which things they click upon when they visit and browse pages back to Microsoft from many different sites, including Google. What Microsoft is doing is collecting user data from users regardless of where they visit and regardless of what they click upon. Their focus isn’t upon copying Google’s results, but rather incorporating data collected from their users into how they might rank things.

    Microsoft isn’t going to Google Search and inserting as many queries as they can, and using those results to inform Bing’s results.

    So, is collecting that toolbar data from many sites, including Google search results, copying Google? If you work at Google, you might say that they are. If you work at Microsoft, you might say that the data they are collecting is user data, and not specifically Google data.

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