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The Ultimate Search Engine

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others are developing next-generation technologies that automate and personalize information search. The search engine, that little browser tool into which you type a phrase, hit Enter, and hope for the best, is notoriously inefficient, often returning millions of off-the-mark URLs. People search for 11 minutes on average before finding what they're looking for, and half abandon searches without getting that far, according to Microsoft. By Gartner's estimate, half of potential Web sales are lost because visitors simply can't find what they want.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and dozens of search specialists, including those catering to business customers, are racing to develop next-generation technologies that do a better job of getting people the information they seek. With emerging tools, people will no longer have to dumb down their queries with the pidgin language understood by first-generation search engines. They'll be able to ask questions in English and other languages--or pose no question at all and automatically receive results based on their earlier queries or the applications they're using.

The results users do get will include audio and video files, PowerPoint slides and other infographics, and structured data--all in one stream of results culled from the Web, PCs, and company databases. Over time, image searches will even detect information in the image itself, rather than by parsing metadata.

Search results will be more accurate and automatically summarized, with relevance determined by individual preferences. New methods of presentation such as clustering, tag clouds, graphical scales that widen or narrow searches based on parameters, and automated categorization will make it easier to navigate results. And search engines will be enhanced by human intelligence and the wisdom of crowds through tagging, social bookmarking, and shared searches.

We won't have to wait long for some of these souped-up search engines. The following advanced capabilities are beginning to surface in a variety of places.

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