Bing Turns Grinch for Cyber Monday

If you were searching for holiday shopping deals this Monday, I hope you weren’t using Bing. As it turns out, Microsoft’s search engine removed many sites specifically focused on publicizing Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals from its results. Did Bing become a Grinch, or is something more sinister going on?

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land provides a comprehensive report of what appears to be going on. It’s well worth reading if you enjoy drinking your egg nog flavored with a dose of real-life irony. I kept shaking my head, wondering what the folks at Microsoft were thinking.

Take, for instance, the website CyberMonday.com. This site was removed from Bing’s index, supposedly due to thin content. But here’s the thing: the site is run by the National Retail Federation’s digital division. Microsoft is one of this division’s member companies – and the division, named Shop.org, is the one that  coined the term Cyber Monday about six years ago. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s enough to raise a “something’s not right” flag.

Google, on the other hand, seems to like CyberMonday.com. The site appears high among its top ten results for a search on the phrase “cyber monday.” That’s particularly interesting since Google has gone on record with its Panda updates as fighting a battle against websites that offer thin content.

Sullivan notes that CyberMonday.com isn’t the only holiday sales website Bing excluded from its index. He notes that Bing also removed a whole assortment of websites consolidating Black Friday deals from its index as well. However, somewhat suspiciously, a link to Microsoft’s own Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals page appears at the top of Bing’s search results for Cyber Monday, right below the sponsored listings. Damningly, Sullivan backs this up with screen shots.

Could Microsoft actually be playing this crude of a game – eliminating rivals from  the Bing search index to promote their own service at the height of the holiday season? When Sullivan asked the company what was going on, it claimed that it was merely trying to improve results for its users. Bing told Sullivan that “Consistent with our guidance to site owners, websites that seem to rely mostly on affiliate content or that offer only thin content often don’t deliver the value searchers are looking for and may be demoted or removed from our index.”

Furthermore, this approach supposedly isn’t new to Bing. Bing said “It’s nothing new, and follows guidance we’ve given on our webmaster site. We don’t have any specifics to share.” Sullivan, on the other hand, went digging for specifics at the link to “guidance to site owners” that Bing provided, and found…not exactly what you would expect.

I followed the link that Bing gave Sullivan, as he posted it in his article. Like Sullivan, I was surprised and disappointed to see that, instead of going to some well-organized document that lists publisher guidelines, it went to the Bing Webmaster Central blog. Sullivan went through the posts to see if he could find any news that thin content could get you banned. The closest he got was an entry dating to August that happens to cover SEO techniques. It does talk unfavorably about those who aggregate content from multiple sources on one page, explaining why “content from articles or syndication cannot stand alone and rank successfully.” But it doesn’t say anywhere on that page that such content could get your site removed from Bing’s index.

Sullivan further notes that Bing’s Guidelines for Successful Indexing also doesn’t provide guidance on this issue — and with a title like that, one would certainly expect it to. But it took going to a section of Bing aimed at searchers rather than publishers for Sullivan to find a hint that thin content could get a site removed from the search engine. It falls under a definition of spam, and it reads in part: “Some pages captured in our index turn out to be pages of little or no value to users…[and] include only advertisements…and no or only superficial content relevant to the subject of the search…we might remove such pages from the index altogether…” As Sullivan noted, this turned up in a place publishers might easily miss.

Despite Bing’s response to Sullivan, he notes that this feels like a very new change, and one that seems targeted to holiday shopping deal websites. And here comes more irony: Bing is applying this penalty sitewide rather than to individual pages, exactly as Google has done for Panda – and exactly as Bing has criticized Google for doing! Sullivan cites an interview in which Bing Director Stefan Weitz noted that they tested Google’s approach of delisting an entire site shortly after Google did it with JC Penney, when the New York Times broke a story about the retailer seriously gaming search results. Specifically, Bing banned JC Penney internally and then tested it on humans, trying to find out whether the results looked better or worse after the change. Their testers said that it looked worse, because they expected to see JC Penney for certain results.

But here’s the money quote: “We have page level classifiers tha tlook at every page we index that attempt to discern a quality score. It looks at things like reading levels, number of ads versus content, length of words, length of page, all those standard things, and some not so standard things as well,” said Weitz. So Bing thinks it’s important to rank each page on its own merits, and has the technology to do so. There’s no apparent reason for it to have totally removed these holiday deal finding sites from the index – and yet it did.

Now, of course, if those sites are truly bad, they shouldn’t be in Bing’s index. But Sullivan used screen shots to show that there wasn’t any significant difference between the sites banned from Bing’s index and the ones that Bing ranked high in its results for holiday shopping phrases like “black friday ads.” Even worse, one of Bing’s top 10 results for that phrase points to a page at Yahoo Deals with Black Friday ads – and the ads on that page specifically come from BlackFriday2011.com, a site that is itself banned by Bing. As Sullivan notes, “Now that’s irony. BlackFriday2011.com is deemed too thin for Bing, but a page that points to all that thin content? That’s apparently thick enough to keep.”

The repercussions of Bing’s actions, though, could go well beyond the holiday shopping season. You see, Microsoft has accused Google, through membership in and funding of groups such as FairSearch, of manipulating search results to favor its own content and lock out competitors. Now Microsoft itself seems to be doing what it has accused Google of doing. With a number of the members of FairSearch actually engaged in a legal antitrust battle with Google over the issue, Microsoft’s behavior surely won’t help them build their case.

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