Companies strive to streamline our web searches

Searches that combine different types of media, including video and blogs, on a single results screen, and those that “guess” your query when you start typing just a few letters: These are just a few of the web-search techniques that are under experiment right now, as internet companies seek new ways to make it easier for students, researchers, and other web users to find what they’re looking for online.

Kevin McCarty, long a devout Google user, recently discovered a search engine he often finds more helpful. It’s called, and unlike Google and other major search sites, it pulls up video, images, and text all at the same time.

“I absolutely hate having to go from page to page to get a combination of image and web results,” says McCarty, a computer consultant in Nashville, Tenn. “SearchMash saves lots of time.”

It turns out, though, that SearchMash is Google. In recent months, the top search engine and its main rivals have stealthily set up a new generation of search engines where they try out new tools and features on consumers without putting their tried-and-true formulas at risk.

If something proves to be a hit–the combined search results that McCarty likes so much, for instance–it eventually could be folded into the parent site. For now, though, these sites provide an entertaining and even useful glimpse into the evolution of search engines, which in their basic operation haven’t changed much in years.

Google Inc. launched in September without the Google name, although it is mentioned in the site’s privacy policy. SearchMash displays a subset of the normal Google search results in an entirely different interface, with collapsible menus for video, blog, and image results on the same screen.

In December, IAC/ InterActiveCorp.’s launched Ask X, which chops up the results page into an unconventional, three-panel format. Standard search results are flanked on the left by suggested terms to help you narrow or expand your search and, on the right, by results broken down by categories such as news and dictionary results.

And Yahoo Inc. now uses and Alta, both of which it acquired in recent years, to experiment with processes such as “livesearch,” a feature that will start suggesting search terms for you when you type just one letter.

All of the leading search brands have operated their own internal test sites and labs for years. They frequently test layout and formatting tweaks on their main sites, often without users knowing. But now they are making their bold new ideas more public and asking users for feedback.

Ask X links to a feedback form where users can submit random thoughts about the quality of the results. SearchMash devotes space on its results page to a box that asks users to select whether the results in categories such as web, image, blog, and video search were useful. Users don’t have to rate the new features to try them.

The companies seek to add new features as internet users demand more than just the basics from internet search services. After all, the standard search model hasn’t changed much in almost a decade.

“For 90 percent of internet users, search today is exactly like it was in 1998,” says Ken Cassar, chief analyst for Nielsen/NetRatings.

But the emergence of new internet content–from videos and maps to social-networking profiles–and the spread of broadband access, which makes searching through this content faster, has many predicting that radically new approaches to search are just around the corner. “It is still the early days in search and in the user interface,” says Justin Osmer, senior product manager for Windows Live.

Even Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is getting into the act: His Search Wikia project aims to radically change the nature of internet searches by creating an open-source search engine with user-

editable search results.

“Search is part of the fundamental infrastructure of the internet. And, it is currently broken,” Wales writes on the project’s web site. “Why is it broken? It is broken for the same reason that proprietary software is always broken: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency. Here, we will change all that…

“Just as Wikipedia revolutionized how we think about knowledge and the encyclopedia, we have a chance now to revolutionize how we think about search.”

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