By Jane Wakefield
BBC News website technology reporter
Google remains market leader in search
Google's dominant position in the land of search remains unchallenged despite innovations from competitors such as MSN, Yahoo and AskJeeves.
How the players will evolve as search becomes the top priority for surfers was top of the agenda at this week's Search Engine Strategies conference in London.
Search has become a hot topic as people spend more time online and become more demanding in their desire to find accurate information quickly.
The battle is set to intensify as search becomes more relevant, more personal and more localised, representatives from Google, MSN and Yahoo told delegates at the conference.
There has been a flurry of announcements in recent months as the major players release personalised web services, desktop search facilities and interactive maps.
Sweden lags behind
Search, alongside broadband, is a booming market at the moment.
The number of people using search engines is growing faster than the number of people coming online, according to net measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings.
HOW POPULAR IS SEARCH?
France - 81% of net users use search engine
UK - 80%
US - 79%
Spain - 77%
Italy - 74%
Germany - 74%
Switzerland - 73%
Sweden - 64%
Source - Nielsen/NetRatings
Search in Europe has grown by 11%, from 79m users in 2004 to 88m in 2005.
By comparison, the number of new net users has grown by just 4%, up from 110m to 115m over the same time period.
France tops the polls when it comes to searching, with 81% of its online population using a search engine. Britain comes second with 80% and Sweden, at 64%, comes a surprising last out of the eight countries surveyed by Nielsen/NetRatings.
In France the second most popular search engine was Voila and local language services did well in all the non-English speaking nations.
In the UK, according to net measurement firm Hitwise, Google is by far the most used search engine, with 69% of the market. It is followed by MSN and AskJeeves, both on 8.4%, with Yahoo tailing behind with 8%.
These figures did not tally with those of either Nielsen/NetRatings or MSN, both of which gave MSN around 20% of the market.
Hitwise has noticed that different search engines are attracting slightly different audiences. While Google is the preferred engine for students and professionals, Ask Jeeves is more popular with families.
While users of MSN are most likely to search on just one word, the AskJeeves audience is more likely to use more than two words.
This could reflect the latter's focus on its ability to answer real questions.
All the representatives at the conference agreed that search had to get smarter as more information comes online and people become more sophisticated in their use of the net.
"Search engines are not yet clever enough to understand what the user is looking for," admitted David Graham, MSN's Search Business manager.
Plenty of information
MSN's own research found 50% of complex queries go unanswered, while even more simple searches take an average of 11 minutes.
Despite this it found that there was real hunger for web-based answers. Three-quarters of people would rather use the web to answer their questions than their own family members.
Jeff Levick, Vertical Markets Director of Google Europe pointed out that only a fraction of the world's information was currently online.
According to estimates by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, there is around five million terabytes of information in the world, of which just 170 terabytes is available online.
Google is determined to "organise the world's information", said Mr Levick, but audience members at the conference were more concerned about over-commercialisation
Asked whether he thought that the trend towards sponsored links would mean the market was taken over by those firms that could pay to get pole position in search rankings, Mr Levick was adamant that would not happen.
"Relevance will always prevail. Just because someone has more money to spend doesn't mean they will be number one," he said.