Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
It may be heresy to say it, but how useful exactly are the millions of results you get when you Google something?
The search (above) and the 17.5 million results
Even if you only get a million hits for a search term or two it would take about 12 days to click through them all if you hit one every second.
Numerous studies have shown that most of those million or more are utterly ignored because few people look beyond the first 20 or 30 results.
The reason you get back so many results you never look at is because Google, partly, relies on keywords to work out what a page is about.
But the problem with keywords is that they are entirely free of context.
So if you search for "prince" Google has no idea if you mean the tennis racket, tinned salmon, computer training, pocket-sized pop star or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Words and pictures
But some search firms are going beyond keywords to put the context back and make looking for information less of a clickfest.
Most of these approaches revolve around a companion program that sits on your PC and watches what you are doing and commits it to memory.
"It's not based on keywords but on key concepts," says Kathy Rittweger, co-founder of search start-up Blinkx that has won a lot of publicity for its eponymous program.
So instead of doing the work of searching yourself you have a personal assistant that does the searching beforehand so everything is ready when you need it, she says.
As well as Blinkx, firms such as Copernic, X1, Enfish and others produce software that lurks in the background while you work on your PC and dynamically suggests links to web pages, locally-held documents and online news by working out what you are really interested in.
Some of the tools, like Blinkx, will find video on the web, others like Copernic's forthcoming helper, let you save your searches and search within them.
"It's not about giving you everything," says Ms Rittweger, "it's about knowing what to leave out."
Martin Bouchard, co-founder and chairman of Copernic, sees the challenge as getting away from "keywords" in favour of profiling "users' particular ideas and specific interests".
Most of the tools produced by these firms do not require a browser window to be open. They just tick along in the background.
There is a good reason for this.
The tennis racket?
"If you control the search you control a lot of other things like e-commerce and advertising," says Mr Bouchard.
This explains why PC-based search tools (as opposed to web-based search tools) have suddenly become prominent.
The small firms producing PC search tools are about to get a lot more competition in the shape of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
A recent study by Nielsen/NetRatings showed that more and more people are going online without the use of a dedicated browser like Internet Explorer.
Instead they use deskbars and helper programs to do their net surfing.
If these firms can persuade you to use their tools then they have a hold, even if it is a benign one, on everything you do online.
In some respects they need to do this because only by selling ads tailored to what you are interested in can they make money and keep going.
But it also raises problems of privacy and security, says Mr Bouchard.
Or this one?
"You need an on/off switch," he says, "If I'm working on sensitive documents or a major report I do not like the idea of having this information sent out to search engines on the web."
And then there is the question of loyalty.
Microsoft is planning to put tools built around a concept known as "Implicit Query" in its next version of Windows, called Longhorn, that is due in 2006/7.
Like other firms do now, this technology tries to work out what you are really interested in and finds relevant documents and information for you.
The introduction of this, like when Microsoft began giving away Internet Explorer, could cut the ground away from the smaller, smarter firms currently leading the way.
"I think loyalty is very much grounded in trust and both immediate and long-term benefit," says Ms Rittweger, " If we gain the hearts of users today by showing the benefit of having Blinkx do the thinking and linking for you, then the switching cost increases over time."