Google's Search Rivals Keep Trying Harder

… or are they just tilting at windmills? In recent weeks and months, Google’s major rivals, such as Microsoft and IAC’s Ask unit, not to mention upstarts like Powerset and Proximic, have come out with new features and technologies they hope will loosen Google’s iron grip on the search box.

The latest to join in the party is Yahoo!, which tonight announces several improvements to its search service. Paramount among them is Search Assist, which offers search terms and phrases as you type, then after you’ve gotten results, suggests more terms and topics you may be interested in. Although the initial results themselves may not be that much different, a comparison of the old way with the new way reveals useful suggestions in a drop-down box at the top.

Yahoo’s also adding some features to get searchers to what they’re looking for much faster, such as videos that run right from the search results—what some are calling universal search. Gartner analyst Mike McGuire thinks they’re nice, but mostly “table stakes,” and even Yahoo seems to agree that getting people to try something besides Google for search remains very tough. Says Vish Makhijani, senior VP of Yahoo Search: “Changing hearts and minds around search engines is not an easy task. We believe we have a chance.”

I don’t think these useful but incremental improvements from any of Google’s rivals are really going to change the game, especially since Google itself isn’t standing still. On the other hand, if you don’t care about the industry horse race and don’t mind trying something besides Google once in a while, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

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