What is Universal Search? Ten years ago (1997) at AltaVista we were the first to introduce multi-media search results as part of your regular text search results. Very similar to what Google is today calling Universal Search. In fact, I remember doing a demo for Danny Sullivan and lots of press people using "Madonna" as an example search query. Madonna was a great example because AltaVista could return regular text results, along with photos, videos, audio, and news. After a brief trial period we abandoned the mixed search results approach.
Why did Universal Search fail last time? Several reasons. First, users didn't really want it. When presented with all these results they consistently clicked on the text results and ignored the photos, videos, audio. They sometimes clicked on the News results. The users wanted deeper, faster, more relevant text results.
Second, ten years ago high speed bandwidth was not as widely available as it is today, so delivering these multi-media results took extra time and bandwidth. Users on a 56K dial-up connection were not happy about waiting for all this stuff to download.
Third, the User Interface design was not the best. Meaning, how and where to place the various search results. Text results were on the left, photos on the right sidebar, Video under that, Audio results were under the text results. Another problem was what "meta data" to expose for each search result to make it relevant. For text results it is easy...put the web page title on the first line, extract a text snippet that includes the search term, and include the URL address. That simple presentation allowed the user to quickly determine if they wanted to click on the result or not. So, what information should you present for an image or video result? How many image, video, or audio results should you expose on the first page? How much screen real estate should be dedicated to each? Those were not easy questions 10 years ago...and still aren't easy and obvious today.
Will "Universal Search" succeed this time? Maybe. Users tastes may have changed some, and bandwidth is far better today. I think it all comes down to the UI design, meaning how the search results are displayed on the page. If I were doing it I would still make text search results the majority of the page, and just have some "teaser" results for images, video, and audio on the side bar. The "teaser" results could have a "Show me more" button to get full page of results for images, audio, or video.
The problem with all of this is where do you put the advertising? Remember, those little text ads on the right sidebar are what pays for all the other stuff. So, the ads must remain highly visible on the top right of the page. See what I mean? User Interface design is very complicated and sometimes very subtle.
It is fun to watch old ideas resurface and be heralded as new innovations. It happens all the time...and with good reason. Many good ideas that failed in the past were just too far ahead of the curve. When the market conditions are right that same idea could be very successful. For a deeper look into this topic see "Innovate or Imitate...Fame of Fortune".