Yes, Google uses data from its Google Toolbar to improve its search results. But no, Google reasserts, it doesn’t use its toolbar to mine search behavior on other search engines in the way that Bing does.
Bing Toolbar & Google’s Results
Questions about Google’s toolbar came up in the wake of Google’s accusations that Microsoft’s Bing search engine was copying some of Google’s search results by monitoring how people search on Google, through installations of the Bing toolbar and the Suggested Sites feature in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Bing has rejected those copying allegations, even though it does admit that there is a “search signal” that these tools collect which in turn influences Bing’s results.
Bing says this signal is simply one of many different signals that it uses for ranking search results, isn’t a major factor and isn’t Google-specific. However, Bing does agree that in some cases, Google might be the only source of a search signal for a particular answer.
Bing also pushed back on Google’s charges by saying that is just doing the same thing that Google itself does, collecting information about what users do through its toolbar, to improve search results.
So is it true, some have wondered: Is Google watching Bing, as well?
Search Signal Harvested, Not Used
Yes, Google does see what’s happening on Bing, at least for users who have the Google Toolbar installed and configured to use “advanced features” such as the PageRank meter or SideWiki. But no, Google doesn’t use any of that information to reshape its search results, the company says.
“We absolutely do not use search activity on other search engines to influence our search results,” said Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow who oversees the search engine’s ranking algorithm
Google sees searches in on other search engines but doesn’t use that data? How can that be?
Consider how in the real world, a wheat harvest collect the entire wheat plant but ultimately only uses the grain. Similarly, while Google is “harvesting” search activity along with other user behavior, that search activity is tossed out, Google says.
Other Toolbar Signals Used?
So what Google Toolbar activity is used by Google to improve its search results? Here, Google is staying tight-lipped. The company fears that revealing too many specifics will enable people to harm its search results. There are some things it has confirmed, however. Toolbar data is being used to:
- Measure site speed, which influences rankings
- Detect malware sites, which may cause some sites to get warnings in search results
These are things that Google has previously disclosed. I understand Google’s concerns that talking more about toolbar usage could potentially cause its search results to be harmed. Still, I wish the company had shared more.
Not naming all the things that the toolbar is used for weakens some of Google’s earlier arguments that the Bing toolbar wasn’t adequately explaining to users that it would record their searches on Google in order to improve Bing’s search results.
Clearly, Google’s not going to list all the things the toolbar is used for. However, the company did say that it’s going to make some general disclosure improvements:
“We are changing the dialog box in toolbar installation to fix some language that, upon review, we found could be clearer,” Singhal said.
For more background, see our past articles on this topic:
- Google: Bing Is Cheating, Copying Our Search Results
- Bing: Why Google’s Wrong In Its Accusations
- Turning The Tables On The Google Toolbar & Disclosure Claims