Remember last year when Google briefly flirted with coloured backgrounds for their search tool, only to abandon it after 24 hours due to negative user feedback, all of which didn’t exactly delight Microsoft’s Bing (who make a point of their use of colourful image backgrounds)? Well, in a recent episode the two companies again exchanged hostilities last week (in a PR sense anyway), as Google devised a clever booby trap to catch out those using Google-created data and passing it off as their own.

The whole thing is not unlike the episode wherein villages and streets were recently discovered on Google maps (including one called Argleton in N.W. England) which did not in actual fact exist – leading many to suggest that this might be an instance of a modern equivalent of a ‘trap street’: the practice whereby a cartographer invents a small side street which exists only in his map as a way of uncovering those who have simply copied it (and thus also the fake street) without doing their own mapping.

Well, this latest incident is more of a big deal perhaps since Google’s latest trick has ensnared rather a bigger fish – Microsoft’s search engine Bing, now accused by Google of copying their results instead of generating their own independent ones. According to Google, they have developed a number of ‘synthetic queries’ which essentially connect two search terms that actually have no connection whatsoever and thus, shouldn’t ever coincide in a genuine, un-manipulated search.

The problem for Bing is that not long after Google instated these synthetic queries into their algorithm, they started showing up also in Bing’s results – suggesting that they were actually coming from Google’s algorithm  – i.e. that Bing was simply producing what has been called a ‘cheap imitation’ of Google’s results. The way in which Google claims this is coming about is not as simple as Bing linking direct to a Google search, but instead involves IE 8 and its mechanisms for collecting data which, in conjunction with the Bing toolbar, are working to provide info on what people are searching for and the results other engines are providing so that Bing can match this in some (slightly impoverished) way.

Bing, perhaps unsurprisingly denies the accusations, and they have their own version of how the events can be explained, but if you look through Google’s detailed post on exactly how they have seemingly exposed Bing (it genuinely is quite fascinating) it seems hard to accept the Microsoft rebuttal. If Google is right then the entire episode could be summed up by saying that Bing’s (relatively weak) position in the search market is artificially maintained by Microsoft’s dominant position in the OS market, where Windows prevalence ensures that IE is still the number one browser – and thus provides a tool for propping up Bing (legitimately in the eyes of the law, but not in a way that many would accept as fair or particularly laudable).