Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) just implemented the biggest changes to its search mechanism in years, in my humble opinion. Yet Big G is really just playing catch-up to Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) this time -- and even if Google remains the big man on campus, Yahoo! is arguably doing it better.

There are two components to Google's latest search improvements: 

  1. Longer text snippets for search results, especially when your query is long and complicated itself.
  2. Better suggestions for related searches, based on semantic analysis of your search. 

Both changes will improve the quality of Google's search results, particularly after users get accustomed to the new ways of Google's world. Finding the right balance between brevity and clarity is always tricky, but Google is moving in the right direction. Still, there's so much more left to do.

Yahoo! rolled out semantic search features about a year ago, along with support for several freely available standard formats of semantic tags. With these tags, content owners and publishers can mark up their videos, articles, products for sale, or whatever. This makes them easier to find, and also lets the content owner customize how the material will be presented.

Since Google is already doing the hard work of trying to figure out what we really mean by that cryptic query, it seems obvious that it would embrace the full benefits of these semantic tags. But Google seems to ignore them. The new suggested searches are nice, but they hardly live up to the full potential of the semantic web.

If I do a search for "apple macintosh," I want to see a nicely formatted presentation from SYSCO (NYSE:SYY) or some local apple orchard explaining the fruit with glossy pictures, right beside the expected slab of stylish hardware from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). We'll get there one day, but this announcement ain't it.

This time, Google is following Yahoo! in some ways, while getting a jump on Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), which is expected to go semantic with the next upgrade to Live Search. Mr. Softy sure didn't buy semantics specialist Powerset to mount it on a plaque in the atrium, you know. IAC's (NASDAQ:IACI) does pay attention to structured data, but it's fallen so far behind the leaders of the pack that it hardly matters anymore.

The race toward the semantic web is on. For now, it looks like strength in branding and reputation tends to attract more searchers than innovative new twists do. After all, Google kept widening its lead, even while Yahoo! seemed to offer a better search experience. Now imagine what happens when Google puts its foot down and cements the technical lead. This semantic step shows that Google still has its mojo working.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings or a concise bio if you like. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.