Whenever people hear about "search engines" they immediatly think Google. A few of the early bloomers might even remember Altavista or Lycos - but they still prefer Google. Sure, they might have seen a challenger or two in their time (Live Search being one) but usually they've tried it a couple of times and then went back to their safe heaven - Google.
I use Google too, for my global searching needs and I love it! Or well....it's at least the best I know - or rather - it was the best I had known. Actually, when I think about it, it's not all that good. Sure, the index is big, and the ranking often makes sense - and it's certainly a nice feature that I can type in 2+2 in the search field and get a result back...But to be honest, once you get your results in Google, you are pretty much on your own - and need to start paging to find what you are looking for in the 13498919384981339849184391 results it found for you (in 0.0o00001 seconds I'm sure). And even the result you're looking for is right in front of you on the first page you might not even know that it's the right result - cause all you got to identify it with is a title and a couple of words showing the immediate context of your search query.
I always excused Google to myself, thinking: Well, being a global search engine I suppose thats how they got to do it - since they can't rely on good and structured data on the web they'll have to go by the lowest common denominator. A good local site search might do better - but only because it can to some degree require the data it indexes to be more structured.
But recently I saw a demo, that made it obvious it doesn't have to be that way. The challenger who's got a brand new approach to global web search is Exalead - a french search engine company. It was at a Panel debate about Enterprise Search in CMForum2007, where Exalead really stood out - both as an enterprise search and as a global search.
Their trick: They automatically retrieve structured data from an unstructured mess.
By having this structured information they are able to help you narrow your search results to the results that are relevant to you. And their search UI is filled with usability enhancing features - take for instance the thumbnails. Showing thumbnailed search results isn't a new idea (in fact I made a demo of it 4 years ago - and many others were doing it before me) - but it's extremly helpful on a global search engine - instantly you get an idea of what kind of page you'll end up at if you click the link.
On top of that they implemented a simple automated clustering (looking a lot like Suffix Tree Clustering to me) - that although it could be better (look at vivisimo guys) still is pretty helpful in suggesting additional search terms for narrowing the results even further.
My only complaint is that the Exalead index doesn't seem to be as complete or up-to-date as google's - I suppose they still have some investments in giant data-centers ahead of them to reach that point - but it's already pretty usefull!
On a side note: Exalead also makes a very nice little desktop search that can be downloaded for free from their site - check it out!