It was a busy year in the world of search. While the big three became the big two, a new engine popped up and another went back to its roots. Google created the most buzz, so to speak, while Microsoft bought a piece of the action, too.
Here's a look at the larger changes that affected people searching and pages ranking in 2010.
Google started the year by changing the mobile version of their home page, adding location and "near me now" features.
In February, Google began testing a new layout with three-columns and options for users to filter the search results to their web results pages (later fully rolled out in May). The interface change included quick links to other Google products, like Maps and Images and allowed searchers to filter results from other time periods. Google tweaked this as the year progressed adding additional features, including location tools.
March came in like a lion for Google as they pulled out of China. Yahoo celebrated their 15th birthday by flirting with offers from Microsoft. Meanwhile Microsoft was beefing up Bing, adding oodles of birds-eye imagery to their maps product and including search history in the Bing auto-suggest.
In April, Bing started including Twitter data into their results.
Having already included tweets for several months by then, Google announced a change to their ranking scheme that factored in the length of time a site takes to load. To oversimplify, if two Web pages are equal in every other aspect of Google's 200 ranking factors, the one that loads fastest will get the higher ranking.
In another move that helped Google produce a new revenue stream as well as new content, Google replaced the Local Business Center with Google Places.
While the big G had fun announcing Google TV and giving us a cool, playable Pac-Man Google Doodle in May, the search giant went back to work in June, unrolling another under-the-hood change, with its new indexing system, Caffeine. While Caffeine wasn't a ranking method per se, it changed how Google crawls the Web and places content in its index.
The bottom line for webmasters: fresher is better, just as I like my coffee.
After a failed attempt to imitate Bing's home page by using large, over-sized photos, Google stepped out of the spotlight the rest of the summer while Yahoo tested out and finally switched over to using Bing's search results. Around that time, thinking SEOs would pay attention to optimizing for Bing, Microsoft launched their own set of webmaster tools.
Blekko, new search engine on the block, opened to limited beta testing in late July. Dubbing itself as a slashtag engine, Blekko promised better results than Google by using better crawling that limited information to only what they deem to be trustworthy sites. Time will tell if it will work.
Two-year-old search engine Cuil shut down in September, failing to compete against the larger, more established engines.
Apparently, they thought typing a query, clicking search, and waiting for a response took too long. So Google Instant returned results that changed as you type and created quite the stir.
Continuing to tweak the user experience, keyboard shortcuts and a cute blue arrow were added to results pages. Forget that pesky mouse or touch pad; type your search query and use arrow and enter keys to navigate results and navigate to a result site. (Don't forget, backspace is the keyboard shortcut for your browser's back button.)
It was no trick, Bing gave its users treats with their Facebook partnership to bring "liked by your friends" to its search results. This gave Bing an edge in the social realm.
Most recently, Bing added Instant Answer to its image search results. No, it's not a copy of Google's instant results. It's more of a suggestion tool to help you decide which definition of a query you want to see. Graphically, it's very much like a auto-completion suggestion tool for smartphones.
Google wrapped up the year by popping up Google Instant on iPhone and Android mobile browsers. Keying in on the "instant" craze, Google added what they dubbed "Instant Previews" (a prettier version of Bing's Quick View feature, but to be fair Ask Jeeves really deserves the credit for this innovation) to search results pages. By clicking a new magnifying glass icon on a search result, you can see a preview of the Web page listed without clicking into it.
Oh wait, you wanted the keyboard shortcut? Use your right arrow key to preview and your left to hide it when you're done.
With all these changes to user experience and ranking factors, no wonder Ask.com decided to go back to what they were best known for -- asking a question in plain English and getting an answer. Ask ended the year announcing they would leave the search engine format and go back to answering the millions of questions with what they deem "the best information from the Web."
To Where Does That Lead Us For 2011?
While Bing has gained numerical ground in its percentage of U.S. searches, Google is still top dog.
Google has made all the moves in 2010 to position itself to be more than just the search leader. They look primed to be the best at social and mobile search.
Their Caffeine update was about acquiring content faster. Instant was about displaying information faster. Look for more interface tweaks and more inclusion of local content from Google throughout 2011.
Now that Bing powers Yahoo, it has a potentially larger audience, but needs to make moves in relevancy and location and really try to differentiate itself from Google -- not to mention convincing Google large number of users to make the switch.
Microsoft is lost in the shadow of Google's changes. They were behind in webmaster tools. They were behind on including social and history. Although they beat Google to the punch with Facebook, Bing still hasn't found their foothold.
While it appears Google is trying to copy Bing, to truly gain on Google's share, Bing has yet to find their game-changing, awe-inspiring feature. I would very much like to see Steve Ballmer's New Year's resolutions.