The past year saw immense growth in the search sector. Search is bigger today than it was twelve months ago in every respect. With the Internet becoming a larger part of people’s lives and broadband access becoming the norm around the world, 2004 was the year that big business fully recognized the full impact of search.

The search sector drives web-traffic by providing each web user with the dynamic roadmaps and signposts that make the web usable. This fact has finally become staggeringly obvious to anyone with an interest in the web. That these roadmaps are self-generating and are increasingly influenced by the interests of the individual user makes search the most powerful medium in the world. The largest of the search firms have found a stable business model in paid contextually delivered advertising that promotes growth while providing unequaled opportunities for advertisers.

Sensing the enormous potentials, investors piled money into a sector that was super-heated by interest surrounding Google’s IPO. Eighteen months of mega-money funding set the stage for the influx of innovative features and tools each of the major players introduced recently. The presence of so much money has also sparked grassroots innovation seeing an increasing number of formal start-ups and home-baked software design enthusiasts produce an array of search related tools and products. Today, nearly every digital product can be searched in one way or another. Among the greatest developments of the year was the expansion of search engine databases to include a variety of file formats previously inaccessible to search engine spiders.

Investment in the growth of the search industry coincides with vast improvements in US home Internet access options that until recently acted as a long-term construction-zone on the information super-highway.

Broadband access in the US has crossed the 50% mark. The introduction of affordable high-speed access for US consumers is one of the most important milestones in the development of the Internet. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, as of October, 53% of US home Internet users have broadband access. While the general behaviors of American Internet users have not yet changed, the increasing number of high-speed users allows the delivery of a wider array of information directly to home users. From interactive appliances to the replacement of traditional print media to altering social interaction, broadband access changes the way people do things. Now that the majority of American Internet users have high-speed home access, the Internet can start to meet much more of its actual potential.

For most of the western world, high-speed home access has been a reality for several years. Legal bickering amongst the American cable and telephone cabals had delayed introduction of affordable services to most US consumers until this year. Now that the most obvious digital divide between the US and the rest of the wired world has been bridged, software and entertainment producers can begin to exploit personal digital distribution of their products. The adoption of high-speed access by US home users will have a major, positive impact on the business of search as US users will almost certainly imitate the actions of users in other areas that have had broadband access for years.

The difference is measured in time. Whenever it is easier or faster to find information on the Internet than it is to make a phone call or send a fax, broadband users will always tend towards using the Net. For most US home Internet users, it could take between 45 – 90 seconds to connect to the net using dial-up. With broadband, the connection between the Internet and the home computer is never severed. Assuming most businesses have useful websites, finding detailed information about a local business or event is almost always faster online than on the phone. Printed telephone directories will be used less, as will telephones in general.

It won’t be long before Hollywood and Brollywood deliver feature films via the Internet directly to home consumers. We already see the music industry moving towards digital distribution of their products, following the lead of the online gaming industry that has been widely enjoyed by users with high-speed access. As a matter of fact, there are now several search tools that find information from television shows by scanning the closed-caption commentary included with many programs. Blinkx TV(beta) captures and indexes video and audio streams directly from television and radio broadcasters to make news, sports and entertainment clips available. Microsoft XP Media Center and TiVo products are both based on the assumption that broadband connection will be the global standard.

Regardless of where the web is going and the role the search sector is going to play in it, most individuals and businesses rely on the free, organic listings. Those listings will remain an important focus for the search engines as they will continue to provide the primary interactive point between home-user and the search engines. The impact of organic placements will obviously be enhanced by the growth of the search sector however once the user follows a link from the organic SERPs, they will likely encounter a great deal of paid-advertising, everywhere else they go. Repetition is the key to memory and competitive advertisers should note the seemingly unlimited power of paid-contextual advertising, especially for Google’s AdWords program. When users don’t encounter AdWords, they almost certainly encounter advertising from Overture, AskJeeves, FindWhat/Espotting, and others as they all have their plans for 2005.

2005 is going to be an extremely intense year. If things are quiet and peaceful in your universe over the next few weeks (and here’s to hoping it is), take a break and read as much as you possibly can. If you have the time to explore, mess around with the new tools and features. Take some professional development time to learn a bit about XML, RSS, FLASH and PHP. Ask your family and friends about their search habits. You may be surprised at the new sophistication that is shaping up. The future, at least as the search sector is concerned is going to be very friendly and increasingly informative. Now that the web is going to become faster for its largest population, it is also going to be increasingly interesting.