You too, Google. Look at Searchme. You NEED to be doing that with your results.
As a user starts typing, category icons appear that relate to her search. She types "bonds", for example, and Searchme suggests "savings" or "stocks" or "baseball", among others. She then chooses a category, and sees pictures of the Web pages that match her search. She can now review these pages quickly to find the right one before clicking through, and then go to the site that best suits her needs.
In order to really see what the other search engines are (or aren't) providing, I decided to run a little test.
I launched my trusty browser and opened four tabs across the top. One for each of the search engines: Google, Ask.com, Yahoo, and MSN Live Search. We all know how simple and intuitive Google's search bar is. It sits smack in the middle of the page, just waiting for your query. Ask.com's is a teensy bit more rich, with little icons for the different styles of search (Web, Images, etc.), rather than just text links. Otherwise, it is a mostly blank page, with the search bar sitting in the middle. Yahoo and MSN's search engines are integrated into the main Yahoo.com and MSN.com Web sites. You have to find the bar at the top of the pages and go from there. There's tons of content on both, which can be a boon or a bane depending on how easily you become distracted.
I enter the search term "Mesa Boogie" in each search engine and hit the return button.
MSN's Live Search provided the barest bones results. A large box of sponsored results sits above the real results. (For the record, the "real" results were pretty much identical in all four search engines, so I am going to leave that portion out of this discussion.) Floating to the right of the sponsored and real search results were some basic links to additional search terms. In small font above the large sponsored text box, there were links to the Images, Video, News, etc., results. Tabbing across each of them showed what I expected: lots of images, links to videos, and links to current news items containing the term "Mesa Boogie". The appearance of the main results page itself, however, is as simple as it gets.
Google's results were similar, but there were some YouTube videos thrown into the actual results listing. It has the sponsored links off to the right side of the page, and similar options to choose from Image results, Video results, New results, and so on. The one I really liked was the Maps result, which pegged some of Mesa Boogie's manufacturing and sales locations on the map. But the main results page is fairly devoid of content aside from the links.
Yahoo's search results were almost indiscernible from Googles's. In fact, if you scroll down so that you can't see the page headers, there's almost nothing to indicate that you're not actually using Google's search interface.
Ask.com offers more. Above the actual search results is a box hosting sponsored links. This box is too big, if you ask me, and shoves the results I want further down the page than the other search sites. But off in the upper right-hand corner is an encyclopedia entry that explains what Mesa Boogie is (a guitar amplifier company), and below that are recent posts from various blogs that mention Mesa Boogie in them. That's pretty cool. On the left side of the page, it offers links to narrowed search results. The others do this, too, but Ask.com offers more options to choose from, and more specific searches, including actual products names and more of Mesa Boogie's competitors.
At the end of the day, all four offer a mostly similar experience. Are any of them good enough? What could make them better? If Mesa Boogie is allowed to inject flashy, video advertisements into the page, it could turn off some users. What about artists who endorse Mesa Boogie? Would it be appropriate for them to do something? Or retailers who sell Mesa Boogie products? What's going to dress up the results to make them better and more useful?
Well, Searchme is onto something with its search service. What it is doing would really make searches more visually appealing. Whether or not it actually lets you find what you're looking for faster, I am not sure, as my invitation to the private beta hasn't arrived yet.