Microsoft is trying to skewer Google as a lousy holiday shopping guide
in its latest attempt to divert more traffic to its Bing search engine.
The attack started Wednesday with a marketing campaign focused on a
recent change in the way Google operates the part of its search engine
devoted to shopping results. The revisions require merchants to pay
Google to have their products listed in the shopping section.
In its new ads, Microsoft Corp. contends the new approach betrays Google
Inc.'s longstanding commitment to provide the most trustworthy results
on the Web, even if it means foregoing revenue. To punctuate its point,
Microsoft is warning consumers that they risk getting "scroogled" if
they rely on Google's shopping search service.
The message will be highlighted in TV commercials scheduled to run on
NBC and CNN and newspaper ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street
Journal and The Washington Post. The blitz also will appear on
billboards and online, anchored by a new website, Scroogled.com.
The barbs are injecting more antagonism into an already bitter rivalry
between two of the world's best-known and most powerful technology
Google's search engine is dominant on the Internet, and Bing runs a
distant second. Microsoft's Office and Windows software remains an
integral part of personal computers, but Google has been reducing the
importance of those programs and PCs with the success of Web-based
services and its Android operating system for smartphones and tablet
Google doesn't require websites to pay to be listed in its main
database, the index that provides results for requests entered into its
all-purpose search box. A query made there for a particular product,
such as a computer, will still include results from merchants who
haven't paid for the privilege of being included.
But that's not the case for someone who clicks on a tab to enter
Google's shopping-only section, which is designed to compare prices and
offer other insights such as identifying sites that offer free shipping.
Searches there are confined to paying merchants. That means results
from sites, including Web retailing giant Amazon.com Inc., aren't
displayed unless they pay. Amazon has only occasionally paid to have
some of its wares listed in Google's shopping section. Zappos, a site
owned by Amazon, has been more willing to pay the price to be listed in
Google's shopping results.
Google defends the fee-based approach as a way to encourage merchants to
provide more comprehensive and accurate information about what they're
"I think you just get a well-organized set of product information, ways
to buy it, and really have a great experience there," CEO Larry Page
said during a conference call with analysts last month.
In a statement, Google said it's pleased with the response to the new
shopping system, which offers listings from some 100,000 sellers.
Google, like Microsoft, also accepts payments for ads that are triggered
by specific search terms and appear to the right or on top of regular
search results. Those are labeled in colored letters as ads. The same
distinctions aren't made in Google's shopping section.
Since its inception in 1998, Google has tried to cast itself as a force for good while depicting Microsoft as a ruthless empire.
But Google is less cuddly now that it's established itself as the
Internet's main gateway --and a well-oiled moneymaking machine. The
Mountain View, Calif., company's search engine is so influential that
government regulators in the U.S. and Europe are investigating whether
Google has been stifling competition by giving special preference to its
own services in search results.
Microsoft, which faced its own antitrust inquiries more than a decade
ago, is among the companies that prodded the investigation of Google.
This time, it's pouncing on Google for straying for from its own
Google began limiting its shopping-only results to paying merchants in
mid-October. The change coincides with what is expected to be the most
lucrative holiday shopping season on the Web yet. The amount of money a
merchant pays is one factor that influences the order of the shopping
results, although Google says it still places the highest priority on
each listing's relevancy to a user's request.
Google discloses that it receives payments in small print at the bottom
of the shopping results page. The notice is also visible if a user
clicks on a link at the top of the shopping results page, under the
heading: "Why these products?"
What's left unsaid is the omission of sites such as Amazon, which tends to offer some of the best deals on the Web.
The financially driven system for determining the results in a major
part of Google's search engine breaks new ground for a company whose
idealistic founders, Page and Sergey Brin, once railed against the
perils of allowing money to influence which Web links to show.
Brin and Page preached about the issue in academic papers that they
wrote about search while conceiving Google as Stanford University
graduate students. They also delved into the topic when they outlined
Google's "don't be evil" creed in a letter written to potential
investors before the company went public in 2004.
"Our search results are the best we know how to produce," Brin and Page
wrote in the letter. "They are unbiased and objective, and we do not
accept payment for them."
Microsoft contends that Google is doing a disservice to its users with
the new approach, as many users may not even realize that the results in
shopping search are being swayed by money.
"We want consumers to know, in contrast to the route that Google has
pursued, we are staying true to the DNA of what a good search engine is
really about," said Mike Nichols, Bing's chief marketing officer. "We
will rank results on what's relevant to you and not based on how much
someone might pay us."
Danny Sullivan, an Internet search expert who has been following Google
since its inception, believes Microsoft is highlighting an important
issue. "Google deserves to take its lumps on this," said Sullivan, who
now works as editor of SearchEngineLand.com. "I have been surprised by
how little attention this issue has gotten so far because it's a
180-degree turn for Google."
Sullivan doesn't think Bing's shopping results are pristine, either. He
points to Bing's partnership with Shopping.com, which also requires
merchants to pay to be in its listings. Some of Shopping.com's data is
fed into Bing's shopping section. When Shopping.com gets paid by a
merchant for sale funneled through Bing, Microsoft gets a slice of the
While all that is true, Bing's shopping section consists mostly of
listings from merchants that haven't paid for the privilege, said Stefan
Weitz, Bing's director.
That's so, Weitz said, even though Bing isn't currently accepting
listings from new merchants that want to appear in its shopping results.
The only way a new seller can get into Bing's shopping search engine is
to sign up for Shopping.com's fee-based service. After the holiday
season, Bing's shopping-only section once again will accept free
listings from new merchants, Weitz said.
Like Google, Sullivan said Microsoft isn't doing a good job disclosing
the role that money plays in its shopping-only results. He thinks that
issue could undermine the effectiveness of Bing's anti-Google ads.