The search engine market used to be cut-and-dried. If you wanted to find something out, you Googled and that was an end to it. There were other search engines of course, Microsoft’s, Yahoo’s, Ask Jeeves and a few more but really these were like an enterprise looking beyond Windows for its operating system - you knew there were such alternatives but didn’t want to use them.

But just as Microsoft has begun to get frightened of some of the alternative operating systems, suddenly the search engine market begins to get more interesting too. First of all, the launch of Wolfram Alpha promises better search of academic papers, Microsoft has launched Bing, Google’s best competitor for some time and then tied up with Yahoo to strengthen the search proposition. In a completely different sphere, Twitter and its real-time searching has shaken up some of the traditional search players . Twitter, which has yet to turn a penny profit yet, is no real threat to Google of course but the advent of real time searching has certainly piqued the interest of the major players,  so much so that both Google and Apple have been rumoured to be interesting in buying the microblogging company.

But Microsoft is the serious competitor and against this background, Google has been quietly gathering ammunition for a fight back. We’ve seen the first signs in the beta of its souped-up search engine Caffeine - and what a great name to inspire the developer community. This is the first indication that the company is worried about what Microsoft is up to. Google might try to disguise its efforts as offering users the chance to try a new technology but the underlying message is very clear - “forget those guys in Redmond; we’re the real search experts.”

A quick look at Caffeine reveals nothing ground-breaking.  To the casual user,  it’s slick but impossible to measure any real improvement, although some have reported increases in speed.  Other bloggers have found differences in depth and breadth of search

Google, of course, disputes that it’s been prompted by Bing and the Yahoo deal - that it’s all geared to improving the user experience but Google must be looking over its shoulder at Microsoft all the time, so it’s hard to accept that this hasn’t played some part - particularly as the Yahoo deal has been spoken about for some time.

It’s a sign though how key the search market has become. The whole of business is constructed on data and fast access to that data, who controls that is a very, very big player indeed. Google has had things its own way for a decade now, Caffeine is the first real sign that the company’s going to fight to keep it that way.