Google's search engine team has carried out an interesting "sting" operation in an attempt to show that Microsoft's Bing is copying some of Google's search results.
As detailed in an extensive article on Searchengineland.com, Google employees "crafted one-time code that would allow it to manually rank a page" for a limited time, tying a website to a random search term that almost no one would ever type into a search box.
For example, typing in the seemingly random string of letters "mbzrxpgjys" would cause the website of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion to pop up first in the results.
The experiment began on December 17 and within two weeks Bing was producing the same results on some of these odd searches, indicating that the Bing engine is copying Google's results.
"Only a small number of the test searches produced this result, about 7 to 9 (depending on when exactly Google checked) out of the 100. 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," Searchengineland's Danny Sullivan reported.
The theory is that Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser feeds Google data to Bing, perhaps through the Suggested Sites feature or the Bing toolbar, the article states.
Microsoft appeared to deny this, releasing a statement to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley that "We do not copy Google's results."
Separately, Microsoft corporate communications Vice President Frank Shaw fired back at Google in his Twitter account, saying, "Google collects customer data from Chrome and Android. Pot calling kettle black?"
Shaw also writes, "Don't be fooled. Google wants to change subject because they're under investigation in the US and Europe for manipulating search results."
Beyond that, Microsoft has been quite vague in responding to the allegations. Bing Director Stefan Weitz said: "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 programmes like the toolbar help us with clickstream data, one of many input signals we and other search engines use to help rank sites."
Additionally, Bing Vice President Harry Shum wrote a blog post titled "Thoughts on search quality," in which Shum lightly criticises the Google experiment without actually contesting its results.
"What we saw in today's story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking," Shum writes. "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."
Shum called the Searchengineland article "interestingly timed" given that Bing is sponsoring today's Farsight Summit on search technology.
An article on Business Insider indicates that Bing copying Google shouldn't come as a surprise since Microsoft has made it publicly known for years that it's using browser toolbars to collect "information about search queries and how long users spent at particular results pages... and not just from Microsoft's own search engine, but also from user activities at Google."
Between Microsoft's responses and the actual results of the Google experiment, in which fewer than 10% of manufactured search terms led to a "copying" incident, it seems safe to say that Microsoft's system is paying attention to Google but using many sources in addition to Google to produce its own results.
Bing accounts for a miniscule 3.68% of search activity compared to Google's 85.37%, according to Net Applications. Yahoo, which uses the Bing engine, chips in another 6.14%.
US-only statistics show a different picture, however, with research firm comScore giving Google about two-thirds of the market, with Yahoo accounting for about 17% and Microsoft 11%.
Microsoft, meanwhile, will have to make do without Bing's principal development manager, Scott Prevost, who took a new job at eBay this month. Prevost's move to eBay is one of numerous executive departures from Microsoft reported in the past few months.