On Feb. 1, the blog Search Engine Land detailed what it called Google's "sting operation" against Bing, which apparently began after the search-engine giant's executives grew suspicious of how closely some of Microsoft's search engine results mirrored their own. First, Google found some terms with no matches on either its search engine or Bing. Then, it apparently created "honeypot" pages that appeared on top of search results for those terms. When a small portion of Bing search results seemed to mirror Google's forced pages, the latter began leveling accusations.
"Our testing has concluded that Bing is copying Google Web-search results, and Microsoft doesn't deny this," Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow, wrote in a Feb. 1 e-mail to eWEEK. "At Google, we strongly believe in innovation and are proud of our search quality. We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there, from Bing and others--algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results copied from a competitor."
Oh snap, as the kids say.
Later on Feb. 1, Google and Microsoft executives at the Farsight Summit opted to take the feud live onstage. "It's almost like a map maker who constructs a fake street and sees if that street gets copied," is how Google Principal Engineer Matt Cutts described Google's operation to the audience.
Sitting next to Cutts, Microsoft Corporate Vice President Harry Shum retorted: "It's not like we actually copy anything; it's more that we learn from the customers who willingly share data with us ... where we actually learn from the customers from what kind of queries they type." Bing Bar and similar features are capable of feeding that sort of data to Microsoft.
(I know two people who aren't going out for a drink together anytime soon.)
Over the next 24 hours, the hits just kept coming. On Feb. 2, a Microsoft executive suggested that Google's "sting operation" had been launched out of pure yellowbellied fear of Bing.
"In October 2010 we released a series of big, noticeable improvements to Bing's relevance. So big and noticeable that we are told Google took notice and began to worry," Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft's online services division, wrote on the Bing Community blog. "Then a short time later, here come the honeypot attacks. Is the timing purely coincidence? Are industry discussions about search quality to be ignored? Is this simply a response to the fact that some people in the industry are beginning to ask whether Bing is as good or in some cases better than Google on core Web relevance?"
In his blog posting, Mehdi also neatly summarized Microsoft's defense:
"In simple terms, Google's 'experiment' was rigged to manipulate Bing search results through a type of attack also known as 'click fraud,'" he wrote. "As we have said before and again in this post, we use click stream optionally provided by consumers in an anonymous fashion as one of 1,000 signals to try and determine whether a site might make sense to be in our index."
With that sort of overheated rhetoric zooming around the Web, it's highly unlikely that this issue will die down in the near-term. As my colleague Clint Boulton pointed out today on his always-excellent Google Watch blog, a blurry line exists "between innovation and iteration." Microsoft and Google both straddle that line, observing and learning from their competition's latest moves. If Google starts offering users the option of wallpapering their all-white background with an image, is that copying Bing? If Microsoft uses data from its users' interactions with Google, as part of a larger clickstream-data feed, does that constitute copying?
Both sides would like you to think so. Google and Microsoft pour enormous amounts of money into their search engines, and the idea that their rival is somehow piggybacking on their innovations is something liable to make your average executive's blood pressure rise to heart-attack levels. On the other hand, both companies have a long-established pattern of recognizing the others' innovations and then offering similar features in response--you can't accuse one side of being sacrosanct, and the other of being a devil, without acknowledging that there's a certain amount of mutual cannibalization occurring in search.
Of course, there's only one way to settle this once and for all: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and outgoing Google CEO Eric Schmidt need to fight it out mano-a-mano in a steel cage. My bet would be on Ballmer. I hear he's really handy with a chair.