Are the tectonic plates in the search market starting to move? You wouldn't think so from the seemingly unstoppable march of Google, but recently there have been some interesting straws in the wind. I know it takes a long time before straws in the wind become a haystack, but they are worth considering. The theme is a move away from what has been described as 'supply side' search - reflecting the needs of producers - towards demand side: a shift towards results being determined by what you want as opposed what is generated by corporate algorithms.
Search engines are becoming dominated by advertisers. This is especially true of Google, which is generally accepted as being 'clean' in terms of separating paid advertisements from sponsored ones. The contextual ads on the right of the screen and immediately above the results are paid for. That's fine. But so, in an indirect way, are the 'clean' results because they are often the consequence of 'search engine optimisation', a multi-billion-pound industry paid to get corporate sites to the top of search results. If you type in something like 'quiet family hotel in Venice' you will mainly be led to hotel groups or travel search firms rather than a bespoke hotel.
And the winds of change? Last week's relaunch of Jimmy Wales' Wikia (re.search.wikia.com) is a great advance on the original search engine, which lacked content and depended too much on Mr Wales' Wikipedia. The new version still has huge gaps - news, for instance, is often hopelessly out of date - but now you can see where it is going. If you think an entry on, say, Gordon Brown is incomplete (which it is) then you can add new search terms or type in a new web address (URL) and see it appear in your next search. You can use other search engines such as Google or Yahoo and make corrections to other people's results. On some searches I was surprised by the relevant material it displayed, which would have been buried deep in the earth by Google. If - and it is a big if - Wikia gets a critical mass of people, it could develop into something really useful.
Another interesting new site launched last week - and British to boot - claims to have reverse engineered the process of search (findsyou.com). Initially concentrating on property and cars, it is a simple one which has nobody advertising their goods to you. Instead you type in, say, a cottage you want to buy (or sell) in Cornwall, near the sea, with three bedrooms and a garden, just like you would in a classified ad. You then wait for replies from estate agents - who are being signed up to watch for selling opportunities - or individuals so you will, hopefully, only get relevant replies. It has partnered with What Car? and the fascinating nethouseprices.com (which reveals how much houses near your postcode have sold for) to help generate traffic. It is not yet at the stage where you can get a decent local plumber but if it can attract users it could go far.
In response to a recent column, readers pointed out sites such as pixsta.com that uses images not words, and clusty.com?, which I hadn't tried for years. Clusty offers uncluttered options to search web, images, Wikipedia etc. But if you press the 'more' button and then 'labs' there are two dedicated searches for Shakespeare or Benjamin Franklin and also the fascinating Clusty Cloud which disaggregates your searches into a 'cloud' of subsections offering a shortcut to what you want. It looks very useful. Sadly, although Clusty was my default engine, as soon as I navigated to other links it disappeared and the omnipresent Google toolbars appeared at the top of the page, making it time-consuming to get back to Clusty. I am still a big fan of Google, but there are definitely issues arising from its increasing dominance. Some serious competition would do it no harm at all.