First there was the Internet, and then came the possibility of putting up web pages. People started making pages containing lists of other pages that they liked, and that's how you found those pages. Essentially, by word of mouth.
Pretty soon there were far too many pages for people to find by word of mouth. We needed a way to search for things on the web. All the users knew this long before the first search engines appeared, and when those showed up they were pretty sucky. Understandably, the companies creating these search engines were concerned about how they were going to make money doing it, and this may have been more of a concern than creating a good search engine.
Finally, Google came along with clever ways to do search and a way to monetize: targeted advertising. The jury is still out on whether this advertising is all that effective, but it seems obviously better to give people links to what they might be interested rather than slamming an ad for your thing in front of absolutely everyone.
I remember when Google first appeared; I found out by someone telling me, in person. Other companies eventually realized that people wanted to actually search for what they wanted and so fixed their competing search engines (in particular, those engines that gave higher priority to paying advertisers without telling you stopped, or went out of business).
In the meantime, the number of pages have continued to grow exponentially or geometrically or by some other power function. And the effectiveness of Google searches has been diminishing for awhile now. If you're looking for something, you have to put more and more work into finding what you really want.
(Web 2.0, which seems primarily to be "a way for users to put information back into the web," has only had the effect of adding more pages to the Internet, so it's part of the problem).
At the same time, newspapers, once the gatekeepers of information, have not been able to cope and are rapidly going out of business (albeit with thrashing along the way, but without any hope that they will reinvent themselves to fit into the Web). First to go are the people who've been paid to collect news and give perspective on events; last to go are the advertising folks.
Apparently even television viewing has taken a big impact because of the Web. It's even possible that people have started to trust the opinions of random people on the Web more than they do those of television news -- as if they suspect that advertisers are influencing the news.
So people are going to the web for information, and the information-seeking machinery has already gotten creaky and is failing. What do we need next so that we can continue to solve the problem?
Not just searching, but filtering.
I'm not sure how this will work, but we need it. We have already seen some attempted solutions for the problem. The most obvious one is people who make lists of things they have reviewed. If you trust that person, you look at their list. For example, Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools is full of interesting things he and his group have researched; I've bought a number of items he has recommended. I have also found the Best Free Software List to be invaluable. Once you find reliable lists your life becomes vastly easier.
An essential aspect of recommendations is that you trust the person who is doing it. The problem here is that if money changes hands, trust is reduced or eliminated, so how does the person make money for the time they invest? Dedicated amateurs are great but they can only do so much. Google ads might become a sort of disinterested intermediary, but I have my doubts.
We'll still use search engines, but those engines need the additional option of only searching trusted resources, things that can't be gamed. There might also appear trust levels, at the top a human who has acquired some large number of "trust points" from users.
I think for any of this to work, we will need to solve the problem of digital identity. As long as people can remain anonymous, everything can be gamed. And it's holding us back. (I don't advocate that you be identifiable, just that you have a unique identity so no one can pretend to be you, and you can't pretend to be thousands of people). If nothing else, it could eliminate spam overnight.
Will Google solve the filtering problem? I wonder if they can, or whether they've gotten stuck in the mire of their one trick. Perhaps companies only ever get one trick, and then the success that ensues bogs them down with collective stupidity. I've heard hints of a lot of interesting ideas coming out of Google, but those ideas never seem to materialize.
For example, I'm quite sure I once heard they were thinking of ads that only cost the advertiser when a customer purchases. Would you have any trouble buying such an ad? It would be a no brainer, since you'd be taking no risk at all. This approach might be prevented by the lack of digital identity.
And Google is spending lots of time and effort preventing its search engine from being gamed, and dealing with AJAX issues -- things that don't move it forward. They seem to be making inroads against PayPal with their much-more-attractive Google Checkout, but I haven't seen many big improvements in that for awhile. In general, the kinds of new things I've seen from Google seem like those that could come from much smaller, less-well-funded companies.
From the user's standpoint, the next big thing will be filtered, trusted information. Although the existing players like Google and Yahoo would seem to be the ones that would pull this off (oops, I forgot to mention Microsoft. Why is that?), it appears more likely that we'll see it come from a new player with a fresh start on the problem. (I shall continue to be vexed by the fact that the big, successful companies aren't going to create the next big innovation).