The big buzz in the search world this week has been Google’s allegation that it caught Bing copying Google’s search results and using them on Bing. Microsoft at first seemed to deny the accusation, but later came out with a statement that rather circumspectly admitted the possibility that it was true.

Google’s Matt Cutts has been sounding rather indignant since the revelation was made. “We don’t use clicks on Bing’s users in Google ranking,” he said at the Farsight 2011 event (an event sponsored by…wait for it…Bing!). Later he added, “I’ve been doing search for a decade and never seen anything like this.” Google’s official blog detailed the sting operation they used to catch Bing in the act, and called Bing a “cheap imitation” of Google.

So is Bing’s use of Google results in its own the moral equivalent of a high school student leaning across the aisle to copy test answers from his smart nerd classmate? I say not at all.

As Microsoft responded in its own blog post, “We use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm. A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers, who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users.” This “opt-in sharing” comes from users of the Internet Explorer toolbar. Microsoft uses the aggregated data from their surfing of the web as one factor in its Bing search algorithm. Inevitably, some of that data is going to come from those users searching on Google.

The fact is, Google already does something very similar, albeit a bit more openly. Google watches user behavior on a number of different platforms, social media sites such as Twitter being most prominent, and has stated that they are factoring those observed behaviors into search results. Should Twitter get on a high horse and proclaim that Google is stealing their results and is therefore a “cheap imitation” of Twitter? Quite the opposite. Twitter seems flattered that there little experiment has grown to the point where the Mega Shark of the Internet is paying attention. Ultimately, Google ought to be flattered that it’s struggling competitor has been forced to acknowledge that Google’s results are an important factor in determining what matters on the web.

There’s one more little twist in the plot here. I’m not alone in observing the possibly advantageous timing of Google’s release of these accusations. It comes all too close on the heals of a wave of bad publicity alleging that Google’s search results were getting spammier and spammier. It’s all the more curious that the announcement of the accusations against Bing was made by Matt Cutts, Google’s chief anti-spam officer. Hmmmmm.

UPDATE (2/2/11 16:38 EST) Search Engine Land reports that Bing has issued a very strong denial of Google’s charges. “We do not copy results from any of our competitors. Period. Full stop.” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s Senior VP of Online Services, goes on to imply that Google engaged in a kind of click fraud known as a “honey pot” to intentionally mislead Bing. The search engine war continues to heat up! (Read “Bing: ‘We Do Not Copy Results. Period“)