The future of online searches may involve faster and greater computing power. Or maybe it will include clever new algorithms that would let people type in specific questions, asking for what they want. Or maybe it will add people-power to the equation, letting the masses express their human intelligence to augment computer programs.
Actually, all of these approaches are being tried, from search leader Google to a slew of little-known contenders with names such as quintura, clusty, hakia, cRANKy, and kartOO.
That's because while the Internet's content grows all the time, it's only useful if you can find what you're looking for. Google made its reputation by performing searches better than anyone else, and it now has the deep pockets, impressive talent pool, and market domination to defend its position. People used Google for nearly half (47.5 percent) of their Internet searches in January, according to comScore Networks, which measures Web activity. The company's closest competitors – Yahoo (28.1 percent) and Microsoft (msn.com, with 10.6 percent) – trail by a wide margin.
But some say Google's position isn't unassailable. "I don't think Google is on any safe ground," says Philipp Lenssen, who founded and edits Google Blogoscoped (blog.outer-court.com), a Google-watching website, from his home base in Stuttgart, Germany. Don't forget what happened to AltaVista, Mr. Lenssen says. A leading search engine in the mid-1990s, it was surpassed by Google's new algorithms, which were based in part on the value of links between sites to produce better search results.
If a competitor could develop a system that truly understood ordinary human language – responding accurately to a request such as "I want to find the best pizza place in my area that's open on Sunday evening" – that would be a huge improvement over keyword searches, he says.