Very thorough, thoughtful article on Google's Universal Search over at SearchEngineLand - but it leaves me asking how anything can be considered universal when the formats change with nearly every query. To give Google credit, the types of pages they include in their search results (core, video, product, news, etc) depends on the type of query. Search for "Yahoo" and you'll get a mix of news clippings, stock ticker, core results, etc. The formatting of the results pages and the blending types change depending on query and Google's familiarity with it's context... the result is anything but a universal experience.
I personally find the always-changing formats somewhat confusing - for instance, for current-event queries, blogs and news are often so jumbled that they are hard to decipher in an efficient manner.
Google Ron Paul and you get a mix of relevant webpages, news, YouTube videos, blogs, etc. Some have icons, others don't. Frankly it's quite confusing and far from the straight-forward experience that Google is known for. For other query types (local, visual, and so on) - this sort of predictive sorting is quite useful.
Use Ron Paul, because current events are difficult to render appropriately, and compare results across the four major engines:
1. Ask: they have a true universal approach: core results in the middle and blending on the right column. Easy to predict where content types are. 2. Google: discussed above. 3. Live: mix of core links, news, icons and related searches. Very clean. 4. Yahoo: two youtube vidoes (with icons), core links and 2 news clippings (which appear more like ads).
Of course, the most important factor is search relevance and the engine's ability to deliver important, timely links for the query. And for that - Google hasn't been beaten.