When Bing Gets Paid For Shopping Results, It’s A “Happy Accident”

    December 25, 2012
    Chris Crum

Last month, Bing launched an attack campaign against Google Shopping, called “Don’t Get Scroogled“. Microsoft’s search engine has consistently been calling out Google’s recent transition form an anyone-can-get-in-for-free approach to a paid inclusion approach for Shopping results, as well as how Google has chosen to disclose this to consumers.

Do you prefer Bing’s business practices to Google’s when it comes to shopping results? Let us know in the comments.

We had a chance to have a conversation about this with Stefan Weitz, Senior Director of Search at Microsoft, who tells us the Scroogled campaign has been working.

“Millions of people have visited scroogled.com and viewed the videos that outline how Google is no longer offering honest shopping search,” Weitz tells WebProNews. “Tens of millions of people have seen our television ads, print ads and online efforts. How is it all working? I can tell you that the campaign is accomplishing what we want – helping people more informed about what they are seeing in search and how what Google once called a ‘particularly insidious’ practice is now status quo for their shopping experience.”

Here are the Scroogled videos:

“I can also tell you the number of inbound requests for interviews and more information has exploded as people understand the issue more completely,” says Weitz. “Last, we now even have some merchants who have contacted us to talk about how the new Google Product Listing Ads experience has negatively affected their businesses.”

But we’ve heard Bing’s side of the story numerous times now, from the campaign itself, and from other articles about it. Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land wrote a piece, concluding that Bing is “guilty of the same problems” it calls out Google for.

We asked Weitz what he’d like readers to know that they haven’t heard before. “I’d tell readers to look at this third party study that outlines what is happening to product selection on Google as a result of their shift to paid ranking,” he says.

Actually, we did link to that before, but feel free to check it out again.

“I’d also tell them to look to Google for more honest responses about what they are really doing,” Weitz adds. “Their only response to the campaign was fraught with errors and misstatements whether, intentional or not, misleading readers.”

“Finally, I’d tell people to look beyond the core issue here and think about the bigger picture,” he says. “They’ve already abandoned one of their core principles that made them a trusted consumer brand and are now trading on that goodwill while surreptitiously changing the rules of their game. What’s next as their margins continue to get squeezed as more usage shifts to lower monetization mobile queries?”

We asked Weitz to explain why he believes Sullivan’s article is wrong about Bing. He says he’s talked to Sullivan several times about this.

“While he makes some good points about ensuring all sites do a great job with disclosure, he and I simply disagree on the core issue,” Weitz tells us. “The problem with Google’s Shopping results is that they look like search. They act like search. But everything one sees in the ‘search’ experience is bought and paid for.”

“In stark contrast, we simply don’t take money in exchange for ranking. Period,” he says. “The vast majority of our product listings come either from free feeds given to us by merchants and our crawler. Yes, it’s harder. Yes, it costs us more money to make sure we offer a quality shopping experience. But at least it’s still real search.”

“One of Danny’s issues is that we accept feeds from third party aggregators like Shopping.com and PriceGrabber,” Weitz continues. “A merchant may pay to have their products listed in one of those third party sites. We, in turn, get feeds from those sites to make sure we have a complete product offering catalog. And if a customer happens to buy a product from a merchant who has paid one of the third party shopping sites to be listed, we do get a portion of that click revenue. But – and this is important – we DO NOT take into account the fact a merchant paid a third party when we rank our product offers. If we manage to get paid, it’s a happy accident. Unlike Google, it isn’t our business model.”

On the Bing Shopping “Getting Started” page, which Sullivan displayed in his article, Bing lists one of the benefits of listing through shopping.com as:

“Higher visibility: Paid offers will be highlighted throughout Bing Shopping, including search result and product pages.”

Here’s that part highlighted on the page:

Bing Shopping - Getting Started

It kind of sounds like if you want higher visibility, you can pay to have offers highlighted throughout Bing Shopping, including search results (and product pages).

We asked Weitz, “Does this not mean that you get higher visibility in shopping results when you pay?”

“No,” he says. “It means you MIGHT be listed as our ‘Sponsored Offer’ above our organic product listings or on the right rail of ads. All of which are clearly marked as ads.”

Perhaps they might want to take another look at the wording. It’s also worth noting that on that page, they’re recommending that method of getting listed (“We recommend this method for the following benefits”). It’s also the first one listed (ahead of submitting a feed to Bing directly).

Back in the summer, Sullivan wrote a letter to the FTC, calling for an industry-wide transparency review regarding how search engines display paid listings. At the time, we asked Google if they would support such a review. Google said, “Consumers benefit from clear labeling in search results, and we have always clearly disclosed which links are paid advertisements. That said, not all search engines clearly disclose paid results, so we would support a fresh look by the FTC at search labeling and transparency practices.”

We asked Microsoft/Bing at the time as well. They said, “No comment.” We asked Weitz about this.

He now says, “Microsoft is mindful of and complies with all applicable laws. We are willing to work with the FTC on relevant matters, including search engine labeling and transparency, and respect the FTC’s role on the issue.”

Bing is not the only one who doesn’t like Google’s transition to paid inclusion for Google Shopping. There have indeed been plenty of users and businesses complaining about it. We’ve seen it in our own article comments.

Interestingly, even former Googler Vanessa Fox, who is credited with creating Google’s Webmaster Central, has expressed concern about Google’s shift. In a recent interview, she told WebProNews, “I’m not super happy about the shift to paid placement in product search. I can see the rationale of why they did it, but doesn’t reflect the stated mission all that well.”

While we had Weitz, he thought we’d see what he had to say about a couple of other recent developments. For one, as you may know, Google has altered its SafeSearch feature in the U.S. to a great deal of outcry. We’ve seen some people say they would start using Bing because of it.

“I’d say this is what happens when a single player commands a huge share of a market – they can do things consumers don’t want and they can do it with relative impunity,” Weitz says.

NORAD, which has been tracking Santa at Christmas time with Google for years, made the jump to Microsoft this year (though Google is still tracking Santa on its own).

Weitz says, “I have watched NORAD tracks Santa for years with my daughter who is now 8 and I can’t tell you the number of times she asked me why Santa was using Google as he flew over the world. I’m glad this year I won’t have to tell her it’s because Santa gets a kickback from Google Shopping.”

Of course, Google didn’t migrate to the paid inclusion model until this year, so there’s no reason he would have had to tell her that in the past, but point taken.

Does Bing have a legitimate point with its attack on Google Shopping? Let us know what you think.