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Google-Microsoft Search Cheat Charges Heat Up

Google alleged this week that Microsoft's Bing search results have recently begun to mirror its own too closely and, after setting a trap, is accusing Bing of aping its results and presenting them as its own.

Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) vehemently denies Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) allegations. Now, it's become a nasty skirmish of sorts pitting a pair of Microsoft executives against a top Google engineer.

"Our testing has concluded that Bing is copying Google web search results," Google Fellow Amit Singhal said in a statement emailed to InternetNews.com.

The controversy began on Tuesday morning when the blog Search Engine Land reported the results of Google's tests. That afternoon, Singhal posted his accusations on The Official Google blog, along with sample searches from the two competing services, demonstrating what he called "copying" by Microsoft.

This afternoon, Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft's Online Services Business, shot back in a corporate blog post carrying the headline, "Setting the Record Straight."

"We do not copy results from any of our competitors. Period. Full stop," Mehdi said.

Singhal explained that Google engineers had become curious as to how both Google and Bing searches on highly obscure topics returned the same top link. In this case, the search query was misspelled as "torsorophy," a real word describing a surgical procedure to narrow the eyelids correctly spelled "tarsorrhaphy."

Google returned the correct spelling and a Wikipedia article about the procedure was the top result. Bing did not correct the spelling, yet it returned the same Wikipedia article as the top result. After several weeks of testing, Singhal posted his blog item.

"In late October 2010 ... we noticed a significant increase in how often Google's top search result appeared at the top of Bing's ranking for a variety of queries," Singhal said. In December, Google engineers created 100 "synthetic" queries -- searches that an actual user would likely never type.

"We were surprised that within a couple weeks of starting this experiment, our inserted results started appearing in Bing," Singhal said.

In addition to denying any wrongdoing, Mehdi said that Singhal's "experiment" was actually a "honeypot" ploy meant to trick Bing into appearing to cheat by copying Google results. Additionally, those results may have come from click streams from users that agree to have their habits tracked in order to improve future searches.

"As we have said before ... we use click stream [data] 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," Mehdi added.

Other Microsoft executives also jumped into the fray.

"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," Stefan Weitz, director for Bing, said in an e-mailed statement.

Since Microsoft launched its new search engine technology as Bing in spring 2009, the struggle between Microsoft and Google has been a hard slog. Microsoft has almost continuously enhanced Bing, but Google has easily kept pace.

Despite Microsoft's best efforts, Bing still lags well behind the market leader. Even after its recently completed deal to provide Bing search technology underlying Yahoo's (NASDAQ: YHOO) websites, Google still commanded 66 percent of U.S. searches in December, according to Web metrics firm comScore.

Whatever happens, the tiff is likely to continue as both companies wanted to have the parting shot.

"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," Singhal said.

"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?" Mehdi countered.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @stuartj1000.