It doesn't get much better than this: two tech giants playing a game of "cheater cheater pumpkin eater" and "I know you are but what am I?" in public for all the world to see.
Google has accused Microsoft, and more specifically Bing, of stealing Google search results to improve its own performance. In fact, Google went so far as to set up its own "sting Bing" operation in December by creating a bunch of nonsense terms (like "hiybbprqag" and "mbzrxpgjys"), manually tweaking Google results to display a specific honeypot site in response to those terms, then using Internet Explorer and the Bing toolbar to search for them.
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Before the sting, searches for these terms came up empty in both engines. Afterward, the honeypots Google assigned to these searches started showing in Bing results -- not all of them by any stretch, but enough for Google to shout "J'accuse!" yesterday in a blog post by Google Fellow Amit Singhal.
Naturally, Microsoft denied this, but only after first appearing to admit it. Here's the first response, issued by Bing director Stefan Wietz (per ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley):
We use multiple signals and approaches in ranking search results. The overarching goal is to do a better job determining the intent of the search so we can provide the most relevant answer to a given query. Opt-in programs like the toolbar help us with clickstream data, one of many input signals we and other search engines use to help rank sites.
After Foley asked them what the frak that meant, a Microsoft flack translated this into "We do not copy Google's results."
But wait, there's more. Bing veep Harry Shum then weighed in with a blog post of his own, accusing Google of a "spy novelesque stunt" but appearing to admit that, yes, Bing does use Google search results to improve its algorithms, along with 999 other things:
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.
To be clear, we learn from all of our customers. 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.
If I'm reading that correctly, Microsoft is saying that being caught stealing from competitors is a backhanded compliment. Also, this just in: Shoplifting is a backhanded compliment to retailers, and a cat burglar breaking into your home is just his way of saying he really likes your stuff.
It didn't end there. Microsoft and Google then took this fight to Twitter, where Microsoft uber-flack Frank Shaw claimed "Google had employees log onto ms customer feedback system and send results to Microsoft."
To which Google engineer Matt Cutts replied: "Normal people call that 'IE8'." Oh, snap.
Shaw's riposte: "Hey, if this whole engineering thing doesn't work out for you, try PR -- you've got the chops for it." Oh double snap!
Google's Singhal told Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan that while Microsoft's alleged theft of Google search results may not be illegal, it sure ain't kosher:
It's cheating to me because we work incredibly hard and have done so for years but they just get there based on our hard work. I don't know how else to call it but plain and simple cheating. Another analogy is that it's like running a marathon and carrying someone else on your back, who jumps off just before the finish line.
I can totally see that. Or maybe a horse race is a better example -- a sweaty Ballmer riding Larry Page like an orangutan on the back of a Shetland pony.
Out on Quora, former Google search engineer Edmond Lau weighs in, saying essentially that yes, Bing copied Google, but so what? It's what a smart search engine would do. And as ZDnet's Larry Dignan points out, it's not like Google wasn't aping the iPhone when it built Android, or Overture when it developed AdSense. In the tech world, imitation trumps innovation 9 times out of 10.
Still, there's a fine line between imitation and outright theft. I don't know if anyone can "own" a search result, but if anybody could it would be Google. In the meantime, it's fun to sit back and watch them claw at each other.
Do you care if Microsoft Bing does its thing with G strings attached? E-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.