Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Microsoft Bing-bang-bungles local search

Editor's note: Microsoft has requested the following clarification: "Bing Ads are integrated only in the web search portion of Windows 8.1 Smart Search -- the ads are never shown in local device search results or searches."

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Talk about having things both ways! A few months ago in its "Scroogled" ad campaign, Microsoft was complaining about how Google uses your search terms and Gmail contents to deliver targeted ads. Now, Microsoft is touting how Windows 8.1 uses your search terms to deliver targeted ads, even when you're doing searches on local drives.

Do people at Microsoft ever talk to anyone outside their own groups? Does the Bing team need to be introduced to the Scroogled team? Scroogled? How about Bing-Bang-Bungled?

Windows 8.1 is still in preview, but when you do a local search in it, your results will include both local and Bing-provided hits. Microsoft will then use your search terms for targeted ads.

For Microsoft, this is decidedly a feature, not a bug. David Pann, Microsoft's general manager for the Search Network, wrote: "Bing Ads will be an integral part of this new Windows 8.1 Smart Search experience. Now, with a single campaign setup, advertisers can connect with consumers across Bing, Yahoo! and the new Windows Search with highly relevant ads for their search queries. In addition, Bing Ads will include Web previews of websites and the latest features like site links, location and call extensions, making it easier for consumers to complete tasks and for advertisers to drive qualified leads." He continued, "Our goal is to make search advertising easier for our customers, while providing the best consumer experience with the most relevant results for the tasks they are looking to accomplish."

It all sounds wonderful -- if you're an advertiser. I don't think it's what users expect from a "local" search, though. Sure, anyone who's paying any attention at all expects their every move to be tracked on the Web, but this is built into PC search. In a way, Microsoft is incorporating spyware into local search.

Imagine that you're a Microsoft competitor who uses Windows 8.1. Do you want Microsoft to know what you're searching for on your PC or corporate intranet? I don't think so!

I'm not saying that this type of functionality is unprecedented. Google has long incorporated that kind of capability in Android and Google Instant search. But it's a new move for Microsoft. Ever since its '90s antitrust trial, Microsoft has steered clear of incorporating Internet functionality in its Windows operating system. Twenty years on, however, with the PC on the decline and mobile devices and the cloud ascendant, everyone is integrating Internet services into their products, and Microsoft wants to do the same.

What sticks in the craw is that this comes so closely on the heels of Microsoft blasting Google for peeking at users' information for the sake of targeted ads.

Fortunately, you can turn this functionality off without much trouble. What you can't do in the preview -- but what you can do with any Web browser -- is pick a different search engine. If you want to use Internet search within Windows 8.1, it's Bing or nothing.

I don't know. Maybe people won't care. Goodness knows they seem indifferent to the revelation that the NSA is peering over their shoulders. Perhaps they'll be as nonchalant about sharing all their local searches with Microsoft -- even if Microsoft did claim to think that such activity was just awful only a few months ago.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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