Tempers ran high at Big Think's Farsight 2011 conference in San Francisco this week when Matt Cutts, Principal Engineer at Google, accused Microsoft's Bing of using Google data to improve its search results.

The second session of the high-profile conference followed a bomb Google dropped early Tuesday morning, saying Bing had stolen their search results by leveraging Clickstream data obtained through Internet Explorer. Gizmodo quoted Google Fellow Amit Singhal, who is none too happy about the announcement: "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."

At the event, Dr. Harry Shum, Corporate VP of Core Search Development at Microsoft, claimed that Bing was simply using available online data to improve Bing's search algorithm — exactly as Google would. He also said he resented being called a "cheat."

Attendees at the conference later overheard a heated debate between Shum and Cutts continue for another 20 minutes offstage. The following presenter, Jaron Lanier, at one point commented that their exchange was interrupting his presentation.

Cutts described how in June of last year "we started to see more overlap where results that were number one on Google were number one on Bing." Amit Singal, the head of search quality at Google, grew suspicious, and Google decided to try an experiment.
Google engineers created "synthetic," nonsense search results, and discovered that "in 2-3 weeks those results would show up in Bing." Cutts described this sting operation as "almost like a mapmaker who makes a fake street and sees the map get copied."

Shum was quick to fire back, describing the synthetic search results as "outliers" that "demonstrate how you can trick a search engine." As for the charge of cheating, "It's not like we actually copy anything," said Shum. "The reason search works is really about the collective intelligence among all the web users."

Cutts took particular issue with the word "outliers." He said he found "Google search results coming up in lots of queries, not just long-tail queries. What we were able to prove in my opinion with this evidence" is that "click data from Google's users is being used in Bing not just for synthetic queries but many queries."

Other presentations at the Big Think event came from leaders in technology and search, including Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal, first investor in Facebook and Powerset, which became Bing, computer scientists Jaron Lanier, Chris Ahlberg, Marti Hearst, entrepreneur Esther Dyson, to name just a few.