Fun with Search Engines (Bing versus [other])

Several months ago I read the following article and I found it fascinating, albeit in a humorous way:

Users Love Microsoft, Yahoo Search -- When It's Branded With A Google Logo

It was around this same time that I saw an article about the Bing API being published and available for developers to use, so I thought that I would have some fun by merging the idea in that article with the Bing search API and create a little experiment on my home network.

By way of explanation, my house has some overkill when it comes to computers - I'm running my own Active Directory domain, several web sites, and my family gets to the Internet through a server that's running Microsoft's Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2006. One of the great things about running ISA server is that I can intercept requests for any site and send them somewhere else, unbeknownst to my family members, which helped set the stage for a six-month Internet experiment that basically turned into a small practical joke.

Using the Bing API I was able to create a page that looked and behaved exactly like - well, a really big search engine that I shouldn't name that's not Bing or Yahoo. I did a lot of testing to make sure that the web, news, image, and video searches looked and functioned exactly like the unnamed search engine's pages, and when everything was working perfectly I created a rule on my ISA server to grab all requests from my home network for that search engine and send them to my search page.

Then I sat back - and I waited. And waited. And then I waited some more. And - nothing happened.

Have you ever attended a surprise party? Everyone knows how they work - you hide while you wait for your unsuspecting guest of honor to arrive, and sometimes you have to wait a long time. Now imagine if the guest of honor never showed up - well, that's basically what was happening around my house. I was waiting to yell "Surprise!" but that moment never arrived.

I'd see someone pull up the Bing home page and search for something; and that was okay. But then I'd see someone pull up the other search engine's page, (which was really my search page,) and they'd get their search results and then they'd go on their way. In hindsight I'm not sure what I expected to occur; I thought that someone would notice - but no one did. Everyone seemed perfectly happy with the search results that they were seeing whether they were using Bing or a search page that looked like something else but was secretly still Bing.

This was interesting when you consider the article that started this whole idea - the people on my home network were perfectly happy with search results from Bing, and they were perfectly happy with search results from Bing that were branded with someone else's logo. It was also interesting when you considered the implications that people didn't notice that their quality of search had changed (better or worse) when I started intercepting their requests - they were getting good results either way so they never noticed.

Now came the difficult part - how was I going get out of this?

Perhaps the sensible thing to do would have been to simply remove the ISA rule that was intercepting requests and no one would have been the wiser - but where's the fun in that? It seemed so non-triumphant to have no one know what was going on, so I started asking questions like, "Hey, I see that you're using [other search engine]; have you tried Bing? Which one do you like better?" I was hoping that someone would say "I like this better" or "I like that better," but once again - everyone seemed happy either way. This was really depressing - I'd spent six months on a practical joke and no one was going to give me the benefit of being able to gloat when it was all over.

Eventually I decided that the time had come to explain to my wife what I had been doing with our home network over the past several months, and her reaction made it very clear that she didn't find my little experiment nearly as amusing as I had. I believe her exact words were something like, "Well - that's pretty dishonest, don't you think?" (I should mention that we've been married 25 years, so this is not the first time that she's seen me do something that in hindsight might not have been my brightest idea.)

Anyway, I obviously had some explaining to do, but I finally convinced her that I was simply curious about whether anyone would notice and whether anyone would still prefer one site over the other when the results should technically be the same. Then she pointed out that she hadn't used the other search engine in a long time, so in a way she had the last laugh at my expense - all that waiting for nothing. ;-]

One closing note: one of my daughters was astute enough to notice one small difference between my search page and the other search engine - the query strings do not match between my search page and the other search engine's search page. I had realized this disparity while I was working on my search page, but I didn't worry about it because I thought that no one would notice. My daughter may not have figured out the rest of the experiment, but just the same - kudos to my daughter for being hyper-observant.