People are overwhelmed at how crowded internet has become, they now expect computers & phones to be smarter and do a lot more for them

Say you need a latte. You might pull out your phone, open the Yelp app and search for a nearby cafe. If instead you want to buy an espresso machine, you will most likely tap Amazon.com.

Either way, Google lost a customer. Google remains the undisputed king of search, with about two-thirds of the market. But the nature of search is changing, especially as more people search for what they want to buy, eat or learn on their mobile devices. This has put the $22 billion search industry, perhaps the most lucrative and influential of online businesses, at its most significant crossroad since its invention. No longer do consumers want to search the web like the index of a book — finding links at which a particular keyword appears. They expect new kinds of customised search, like on topical sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor or Amazon, which are chipping away at Google’s hold. Google and its competitors are trying to develop the knowledge and comprehension to answer specific queries, not just point users in the right direction. “What people want is, ‘You ask a very simple question and you get a very simple answer’,” said Oren Etzioni, a professor at the University of Washington who has co-founded companies for shopping and flight search. “We don’t want the 10 blue links on that small screen. We want to know the closest sushi place, make a reservation and be on our way.”

People are overwhelmed at how crowded the internet has become — Google says there are 30 trillion web addresses, up from one trillion five years ago — and expect their computers and phones to be smarter and do more for them. Many of the new efforts are services that people don’t even think of as search engines. Amazon, for example, has a larger share than Google of shopping searches, the most lucrative kind because people are in the mood to buy something. On sites like Pinterest and Polyvore, users have curated their favorite things from around the web to produce results when you search for, say, “lace dress.”

On smartphones, people skip Google and go directly to apps, like Kayak or Weather Underground. Other apps send people information, like traffic or flight delays, before they even ask for it. People use YouTube to search for things like how to tie a bow tie, Siri to search on their iPhones, online maps to find local places and Facebook to find things their friends have liked.

And services liked LinkedIn Influencers and Quora are trying to be different kinds of search engines — places to find high-quality, expert content and avoid weeding through everything else on the web. On Quora, questions like “What was it like to work for Steve Jobs?” get answered by people with first-hand knowledge, something Google cannot provide. “There is a lot of pressure on search engines to deliver more customised, more relevant results,” said Shar VanBoskirk, an analyst at Forrester. “Users don’t need links to web pages. We need answers, solutions, whatever intel we were searching for.”

But Google remains the guy to beat, even as alternative search sites become popular. “They’re the specialty store you’re going into here and there,” said Danny Sullivan, an editor of Search Engine Land, a blog, “but they’re not your grocery store”.

Yet, the promise of search is big enough that even though Microsoft loses billions of dollars a year on Bing and has failed to make a dent in Google’s market share, it keeps at it. Microsoft — which in February had 17% of the market, and 26%, including the searches it powered for Yahoo — has said it views search as essential to its other products, from the Xbox to phones.