The search teams at Google and Microsoft got into a very public dispute late yesterday when Microsoft's Bing was accused of copying search results from Google's own service - and Google claims to have proof.
Google insists that Bing is returning results that could only come from a query to Google - including misspellings of uncommon terms that return the same, correctly spelled, result on both services, despite no spelling correction being offered on Bing.
When Google employees accused Microsoft of playing dirty, they were initially met with a blanket denial - with a spokesperson stating categorically to ZDNet: "We [Bing] do not copy Google's results."
However, Google Fellow Amit Singhal has posted a blog entry describing a 'honeypot' trap that the search engineers set up for their competitors. After spotting Google-like search results at Bing, the team created a hundred 'synthetic search terms' - random collections of letters that no human would search for in years.
Each synthetic term linked to the same result as its only hit - a real page, but one that has no link to the search terms whatsoever.
"We were surprised that within a couple weeks of starting this experiment, our inserted results started appearing in Bing," Singhal explained. "a search for 'hiybbprqag' on Bing returned a page about seating at a theater in Los Angeles. As far as we know, the only connection between the query and result is Google’s result page."
Since the results of Singhal's experiment were made public, Microsoft has altered its stance on the matter. Explaining the strange results of the experiment, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Bing division Harry Shum stated: "We use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm. A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers, who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users.
"What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience."
The discussion dissolved into argument, with Bing accusing Google of filling its search results with ad-revenue-generating spam, and Google sticking to its story that Bing is playing fast and loose with its users' data.
The highlight, however, came at the BigThink.com search summit - with employees from both companies taking to the stage and to Twitter to publicly denigrate the actions of the other.
With Microsoft sticking to its story that Bing doesn't do anything amiss, and Google maintaining that its experiment proves data theft, one thing is clear: a Social Network-esque film about search engines just got significantly more likely.