Searching for inspiration

Beating Google at the search engine game may not be totally impossible, but it's about as close as you can get without trying to eat the sun using a fork. To even be in with a chance, two things need to happen. First, you need to have a phenomenal idea that catches on. Second, Google has to screw up.

Had Yahoo not decided that what people really wanted from their search pages was a huge unwieldy portal, had the likes of AltaVista not been renowned for getting millions of search results instead of the right ones, there would never have been a proper opening for Google to sneak in with its minimal service.

As it is, Google is too reliable to be beaten. It's sleek, it's easy and it gives you the correct answers more often than it fails. There's simply no reason to switch away from it as your default search engine, no matter how nice the alternatives happen to be. However, Google doesn't have the market sewn up, not by a long shot.

Its size is its main weakness, best seen by its reluctance to even add options onto the mighty google.com front page. More sweeping changes, especially the kind that fundamentally alter the way its engine works or are presented to the world, risk throwing away its precious dominance.

Taking a bite from Google's pie

Two recent services in particular have the potential to take a bite out of its market. The first is Wolfram Alpha which has the power to compute answers instead of simply presenting pages. Google can do this on a small scale, such as converting weights in kilograms into stones, but nothing on this scale – at least, not yet.

The second is Twitter. The service heralds a world of real-time search, one where you can find out what's going on right at the very second that you're typing words into the search box. This is perfect for following breaking news (as evidenced by the deluge of posts about the Mumbai shootings last year) or finding out what's going on at a big awards or industry show. Essentially, it will be excellent for finding out about anything that you just can't wait for the Google spiders to pick up.

Both of these tools are on Google's radar, with realtime search currently its next big project. However, Google is at a disadvantage here. Its trademark simplicity means that there's a limit to how much data it can push at people when they do a search.

After all, most of its users never even bother with the tools it already provides – an example is the Advanced Options, which make it possible to find only results from the last 24 hours and to sort results by date. A service that makes one of these more specific searches its sole focus could effectively own the market – and owning the market would give it a chance to widen its scope into the far more well-trodden ground of general internet searching as well.

Anything more subtle than these sweeping changes will be too little, too late. Or just too gimmicky. We've seen companies put a face on searches – most famously with Ask Jeeves, but also with Microsoft's experimental Ms Dewey – and slap on related searches or work via pictures, such as with Teoma and Cuil, but they've never been enough.

As for searching new types of media, such as video content or documents, that's the kind of feature that Google could easily integrate into its standard search engine if it wanted to without having to radically change the standard look or feel of the site. Whatever the next Google is, we can guarantee that it'll have a social networking element.

Aside from the fact that a community gives people a reason to stick with a service, algorithms will never be able to work out something as simple as what people enjoy as quickly and easily as having those people tell you via a thumbs-up button.