This morning a new search engine Cuil opened their doors, and it's getting a lot of press. Part of the reason is it's got several ex-google people at the helm, and it's also making claims that attack at Google's core competencies - scale, index size, efficiency, even simplicity. At the end of the day, most of these things don't mean much to every-day users, so it really comes down to how helpful the results are. Early feedback is that the initial results from Cuil aren't as strong as Google's, but their secondary filtering that shows up via their tabbed recommendations on top and side are proving to be on point and helpful as pre-populated follow-up searches that you probably would have had to type in on Google anyway. The most notable difference is also the fact that results by default show up in 3 columns, and with much more text - almost a paragraph - giving you a full page of responses that seem intended to be more valuable as a composite answer to your query than a list of ranked leads to the answer. I did my usual vanity search for "skobac" on Cuil and it wasn't very on-target; most of the results were for a social bookmarking service that I registered for and never used, and it completely skipped my personal blog, my facebook account, etc, the things I update almost daily. It also didn't reveal anything on my uncle, a notable Orthodox Rabbi, until the second page. More importantly, the Cuil launch draws attention to the explosion of high profile start ups that are trying to move gain mind share and search share through a variety of new angles. Here are a few that might continue to draw attention, influence the search engine mains stays (even Google), and in some way might even help you in your search needs:
Mahalo - brainchild of Jason Calacanis, Mahalo is a wikipedia-like search engine that focuses on expert guides to queries. The Mahalo model presumes that people only really care about the top stuff anyway, so why not make it short and sweet and give it to them. Mahalo guides pull together the final product, but anyone can suggest links for topics, and the user-generated search engine has seen strong growth since opening up. A good example of optimal use is "San Francisco Vacation"; it also pushes editors to develop pages on breaking content in real time. The best part about Mahalo is possibly the firefox extension they built to integrate Mahalo expert recommendations into Google; this way you can search as you usually do on Google, but if Mahalo has a valuable addition to your query, it gets added in on top.
Powerset - now acquired by Microsoft, Powerset is a semantic search engine that is trying to crack the code of "natural language filtering"; in other wrods, it tries to understand what we're really saying in those search quieries, rather than just matching words. It's perhaps the most challenging undertaking with the biggest upside, and numerous search engines are trying to crack natural language filtering, but Powerset gets the attenion because Microsoft just acquired it and the technology will start to influence Live.com search results before the end of the year. It also has a powerful proof-of-concept built out around Wikipedia, which provides a much more robust and powerful search engine for the enormous and popular social encyclopedia. Powerset tries to give you results that actually answer your question, rather than just bringing you places to find the answer, and they provide numerous examples of this in action right on their website, such as "what are the ingredients in beer"?
Searchme - designed under the premise that people take more from visual experiences, Searchme is a lightning-fast search engine that generates results in cover-flow style, as an iTunes for search. You can flip through the results and see full page screenshots, with the search terms highlighted, as well as a summary of the site at the bottom. It also enables you to filter between web, video, and image results, as well as by category. An example search of "Barack Obama" offers you filters by political news,, business news, democratic party, or more. I don't see why it helps much in every day searches, but it's great for image search, and the ability to create custom "stacks" of results makes it a helpful way to create a screenshot collection of best pages for a particular topic to save for viewing later, or to recommend to someone else. Any other time you want a visual preview of the results, it's definitely the fastest and most functional visual search tool ever designed.
At the end of the day, Cuil, Mahalo, Powerset, and Searchme may not show enough of a difference in utility to change your normal search patterns (more often than not we all default to Google), but it does show us that search isn't over, and that there are potentially new, interesting, and hugely impactful innovations in search. If anything, the attention that these new startups draw, and the high-stakes of losing even a percentage point of use to one of them, puts pressure on the Google and the like to keep inovating themselves, keep progressing in usability and value, in order to maintain and grow their own search king status, and that is incredibly important as they start to reach monopoly size market proportions.