Today, most search engines depend primarily on algorithmic processing: results ordered by popularity. At present, this relies on keyword matching, but Google's director of research, Peter Norvig, says the next step for search is a better understanding of users' intentions. In other words, what it really was they were searching for – Jaguar the car, rather than jaguar the mammal, for example.

The sort of tagging and feedback found on Flickr and YouTube entries will become increasingly important too, as people add their own commentaries after viewing others' posts. This, it's hoped, will lead to more specialised results as searches pick on how highly peers rank a particular service. You'll be able to get recommendations for the best, or most popular, plumber or nanny in your neck of the woods.

Social-network searching will extend to other areas, too. Adam Sohn, a director in Microsoft's online services group, says that most video sites encourage the people who upload clips and those who view them to add tags. "Over time, especially with video, there will be this social input, where people add tags to other people's video. Then you get this sort of community-reinforced set of searchable attributes."

To enable users to make better use of the way search engines currently work, Norvig says Google needs to show users how to get better, more tailored results, handholding them through the process. Microsoft, meanwhile, is creating a two-way feedback mechanism with which users can rate how useful the returned search results turned out to be.

You won't need to perform separate searches for images, video or news, either. Instead, a single database will serve up all types of content. Sohn uses the example of combining results from Windows Live's QnA (question and answer) section with its main search section. "We need to build the connection between the two services. It's not a multiyear thing; it's in the next 12-to-18 months."

Analysis: the future of the internet