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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Pursuing needles in digital haystacks
Woman looking at Google's image search
Trying to tease users away from Google can be difficult
Google now accounts for over half of the world's online searches - three quarters in the UK - making the fight for a shred of its market-share a full-time job for rivals.

Microsoft, Yahoo and Ask have been busy offering new interfaces and features in an effort to compete.

But broadly the search engines offer similar services - different ways to refine searches, link to shopping and local services and access blogs and other sources, alongside traditional web pages.

According to Jupiter analyst Nate Elliot the underlying algorithms that powers search are also very similar among the main players.

"Strip out the brands and just show the results and there is not often a lot of difference. The biggest difference between them is the logo at the top of the page," he said.

And it is here that Google has a huge advantage: a trusted brand in many people's minds, there is little reason to desert it for one of the other search engines.

The BBC News website takes a look at some of the features offered by the main players and where they go next.

YAHOO

Yahoo's headquarters
Some see Yahoo as under Google's shadow

Without Yahoo, Google wouldn't be the company that it is today. Between June 2000 and May 2004, Google powered Yahoo's search engine and since then, many think that Yahoo has been in Google's shadow.

Its latest upgrade sees it introduce an interface that integrates video, audio and photos into search.

There is also a new search-assist feature based on concepts. It allows the engine to provide a list of possible questions when users type their request.

It is seen as being pretty innovative in social search with features such as Yahoo Answers offering users the chance to post questions and seek answers from other users.

It owns photo-sharing site Flickr, which gives it a vast image library, and should help toward becoming what vice-president of search Vish Makhijani described as the "best in breed in certain categories".

Its other big play is in the area of mobile search. Most recently it has done a deal with Spain's Telefonica to become the main search engine on its networks in Europe and Latin America.

MICROSOFT LIVE SEARCH

Formerly known as MSN search, Microsoft's Live Search has just had a significant revamp. According to Derrick Connell, Microsoft's global live search general manager, this latest makeover was more for existing customers than about attracting new ones.

"We wanted to engage current users rather than convince other users to come to us. It was about differentiating the service from what we had last year," he said.

As part of this it has quadrupled the size of its searchable index and improved relevancy of answers with, for instance, links to reviews when looking for products.

From the white box that people type into to a fully scaled 3D model of the world, the way people get access to their answers will dramatically change,
Derrick Connell, general manager Microsoft
It now offers the ability to refine questions, view additional search results on the same web page rather than clicking through to the next page and dynamically adjust the amount of information displayed for each search result.

It also allows the user to save searches and see them updated automatically on Live.com

Microsoft is concentrating on four main areas of search; entertainment, shopping, local mapping and health which, according to Mr Connell, account for 40% of all searches.

"There will always be a basic human need for answers to questions but everything else will change," said Mr Connell.

Microsoft's mapping service Virtual Earth 3D, could play a huge part in the future of search, he thinks. "From the white box that people type into to a fully scaled 3D model of the world, the way people get access to their answers will dramatically change," he said.

ASK

Ask was relaunched in June 2007 with a more simplistic interface which divided the search page into three columns.

The left-hand column lets searchers refine what they are looking for to make their terms either more or less specific.

The central column contains a familiar list of results plus adverts and the tools that let people save pages or use the now well-known binoculars feature to get a sneak preview of websites.

The right-hand column gives instant access to results from other categories such as images, blogs and video.

For some its collaboration with Bloglines, enabling users to search and track blogs, is one of its best features while others admire its image search facility.

For Jupiter's Elliot, Ask has always been the plucky under-dog.

"I really like Ask and I think they have offered some of the most innovative features of the last year," he said.

GOOGLE

Google's dominance of the search engine market comes down to two things, most experts agree.

It's simple interface and the way it was able to provide much more accurate results than its rivals in the early days.

This was down to a new way of ranking pages, a kind of real-life metric, which took into account how many others linked to and referred to sites.

Google's search engine comes with a long list of features from the now-familiar I'm Feeling Lucky, to images, books, street maps, local search and a new tool to refine searches.

For Allen Weiner, research director at Gartner, Google is still the winner when it comes to general queries but in other areas, it is not doing so well.

"Its book search seems like an uphill struggle and its video search might be good on YouTube because it owns them but using the same web technology for searching the video universe might not work," he said.

In the spring, Google showed how important it thought personalised search would be when it introduced iGoogle, which allowed users to publish their own content on a personalised Google homepage.

As for the future, Gartner's Weiner thinks the real threat might not come from its traditional rivals.

"I'm not sure what makes winners and losers in the search space but it might come from other companies offering niche searches, such as TV Guide and BuddyTV," he said.

SEE ALSO
Search giants offer new features
02 Oct 07 |  Technology
Web search engines get personal
08 Aug 07 |  Technology
What search engines know about us
31 May 07 |  Technology
Trying to break the Google habit
12 Apr 07 |  Technology

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