Microsoft and Google executives engaged in some contentious back-and-forth during a Feb. 1 roundtable discussion at the Farsight Summit, suggesting emotions are high in the wake of Google accusing Bing of copying its Web-search results.
"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."
Singhal had originally been scheduled to appear at the Farsight event, which had been billed as "Bing Presents Farsight 2011: Beyond the Search Box" and set to include Microsoft Corporate Vice President Harry Shum and Blekko co-founder and CEO Rich Skrenta. Hours before the 1 p.m. EST start, however, both Microsoft and Google confirmed that Google Principal Engineer Matt Cutts would take Singhal's place.
That did nothing to dampen the microbursts of animosity during the hour-long discussion.
Cutts started off by summarizing Google's accusations, which had spread across the Web that morning, courtesy of a posting on the blog Search Engine Land. The search-engine giant had launched what the blog called a "sting operation," finding terms with no matches on Google or Bing, and then artificially driving "honey pot" pages to appear on the 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.
"Google says it doesn't know why they didn't all work, but even having a few appear was enough to convince the company that Bing was copying its results," the blog's Danny Sullivan wrote in that posting. "In cases where there are no signals other than how Google ranks things, such as with the synthetic queries that Google tested, then the Google -signal' may come through much more."
In his opening salvo, Cutts tried to frame Google's operation in simple terms: "It's almost like a map maker who constructs a fake street and sees if that street gets copied."
But Microsoft's Shum seemed unwilling to accept the accusations. "It's not like we actually copy anything; it's more that we learn from the customers who willingly share the data with us," he said, "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.
In a Feb. 1 Bing blog posting ahead of the Summit, Shum suggested that Microsoft's engineers use over 1,000 signals and features for Bing's algorithm. "A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers," he wrote, "who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the Web."
Google's operation, he added in the posting, "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 backhanded compliment."
During the talk, however, Cutts disagreed with that tail-query assessment and suggested, "Google search showed up in a lot of queries, popular queries, not just long-tail queries."
Shum stuck to his proverbial guns. "What we are saying is that we learn from our customers; we use the customers' data," he shot back. "Does Google actually own the data?"
A Feb. 1 e-mail from a Microsoft spokesperson to eWEEK echoed Shum's comments. "We use multiple signals and approaches in ranking search results," read that statement. "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."
How this affects the competition between Google and Bing remains to be seen, although Bing has some distance to climb in market share before it presents an existential threat to the search-engine giant.