Google accused Bing of copying its results, implying the hint of scandal. Google uncovered the conduct through some clever sleuthing, and was proud of itself. Bing responded with indignity and complete disregard, accusing its rival of exaggerating.
Joshua Gans put his finger on one key aspect of this situation in a recent post, and I would like to take the spirit of his suggestion and push it further. Gans believes we need a new word to describe what happened. I concur.
To be frank, at first this was not obvious to me. With a few days gone, however, calm returned, I began to look back on this episode and grin. There is something rather amusing and absurd about this spat. In the first place, in the greater scheme of things the details behind this episode will not amount to much, so they did not deserve the hyperbole that either Google or Bing brought to their public pronouncements.
Yet, there is something rather engaging about the way Google set a little trap. They used a made-up word, Hiybbprqag, and planted it on the web to catch Microsoft imitating Google’s search results. I cannot shake the amusing image. Twenty engineers sat in their homes, with instructions to enter some made up words, such as hiybbprqag, and then they anxiously waited two weeks to see if Bing would take the bait.
<sarcasm alert> Just think of what a good Hollywood script writer could do with this material. If you had asked me last year I would not have thought it was possible to make an entertaining Hollywood movie about a self-centered Harvard undergraduate who implements a social networking site more successfully than a few others classmates, but I was wrong. If that movie could work, then Google’s antics have so much more potential. This is the fodder for a trilogy of movies about high-tech competitive intrigue. Nerd wars here we come. But I digress. <end of alert>
Gans’ observation mixes a serious bit of analysis with tongue-in-cheek amusement (which is Gans usual disposition towards life, and the primary reason he is good for an extended conversation on any occasion. But I digress once again). He observes that our language for competitive rivalry is not appropriate for what we all observe in this spat. That is part of the problem with the news reports about the episode. What we observe is neither imitation in the usual sense, nor quality competition in the usual sense. It is something else, something slightly different, something in need of a new label.
Bravo, Joshua. The spirit of this observation is right. That said, I do not entirely agree with Gans’ implementation, and that is the point of this post. I would like to suggest a new word.
I will not repeat Gans’ entire analysis, which you can read on your own. Rather, I will summarize the main point, because it forms the jumping off point for this post.
Gans suggests this situation is something different from what we usually see offline. The key features of conduct are these: two firms are using automated processes and vast amounts of user behavior to make qualitative improvements to their products; this is not a one time process, but, instead, it continues regularly, each day, and each week and each month.
Gans further argues that this conduct results in something other than what we usually call imitation. It is not deliberate imitation of a design, or reverse engineering as it is sometimes called in hardware markets. It is also not strategic alteration of a design in response to observing a rivals’ design, which normally fuels either strategic matching or differentiation. It also is not a variation on the usual causes of “featuritis”, the incessant piling of software features on top of one another by rivals caught up in an arms race fueling buggy software. Nope, it is not any of those familiar situations. So far so good.
Then Gans goes a little further. He suggests we need a new word for this situation. More concretely, he suggests that analysts should coin a new phrase for this situation. Borrowing one of the made-up words from Google’s antics, and with delicious sense of amusement, Gans suggests we all call this behavior a version of “Hiybbprqag’ing.”
This is a good idea. (After all, you know any idea is a good idea if Colbert’s writing team had a similar idea. But I digress again.)
This is where I part ways with Gans, but only slightly. I like the spirit of the suggestion, but it is not very practical. Just look at that word. Hiybbprqag’ing is just too much to say. And it is too hard to spell. And it is just a little too weird to say, as if a drunk Robin Williams read either an Arabic and Cyrillic word and in the transliteration hit a few wrong keys on the keyboard. The word does not roll off the tongue.
Well, this is my world and welcome to it. In my world we shorten words, simplify phrases, and make words prettier. In other words, instead of “hiybbprqag” try “Hiybb.”
Consider the following sentence: “Microsoft Hiybbed Google, but Google did not take kindly to the Hiybbing and demanded they stop. Bing refused.” That succinctly describes the situation.
Now consider this sentence: “The hiybbing generated publicity, leading many bloggers to make a mountain out of molehill, creating a publicity problem for both Bing and Google.” The new word made it much easier to describe what has happened in the blogosphere in the last week.
This new phrase also allows me to make my previous point much more succinctly, as in this sentence: “Google’s and Bing’s hiybbing removes almost every element of surprise from the competitive setting. In an offline setting a similar loss of privacy between rivals would not be viewed as an improvement in the competitive process.”
Having said that, that does not settle all the questions. For example, should the word have an expansive or narrow definition?A narrow definition would focus on imitation through automated processes that watch user behavior. An expansive definition would allow for more than that.
I prefer an expensive definition. An expansive definition accounts for quasi-routine monitoring of online rivals, even when it does not involve automated processes. That usually occurs in the rivalry between content providers. In many online content firms one person is assigned to watch the content on a rival’s site and make sure the rival never contains a unique popular piece of content for too long.
The expansive definition will allow hiybb to apply to more than search engine firms.
As illustration, consider this sentence: “Over time ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports engaged in an unacknowledged hiybb contest, as each sought to include more and better highlights of the baseball games from the news of that day, or the news of the recent week and month.”
Or, perhaps this one: “After losing too many readers to Gawker, the political bloggers on the Huffington Post engaged a bit of hiybbing here and there. But one hiybb begat another, and it quickly morphed into regular intense hybbing after Gawker began regularly hiybbing in return. Without actually meaning to do so, both sites began to let the hiybbing change the focus of their content. After a while they both began to taking a tabloid’s personal approach to describing political events.”
This new word is very handy. It says something succinctly that no other word could say. I like the sound of it too. How about you?
What do you mean it was hiybbing?
Rivalry among online firms may not always comfort me, but it never ceases to beguile me. So I would like to end with the same question with which I began. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a word such as hiybb in the dictionary someday? Wouldn’t it be great to hear someone say, “What do you mean it was hiybbing?” (With apologies to James Thurber).