Search Engines are the primary tools for information retrieval on the internet. A search engine attempts to determine a user's information need based on short (typically two- or three-word) queries and delivers a ranked list of the most pertinent documents to the user.

Early algorithmic search engines such as Excite and Alta Vista relied solely on the document content to estimate their relevancy for a given query. Google revolutionized internet search by using the link structure of the web to computationally determine the quality of documents. As the web grows and computers have become more powerful, commercial search engines have added many new inputs to determine document relevancy, including analysis of similar queries by all search engine users, neighbors (geographic targeting), friends (social search engines), and the individual's search history (personalization).

Surf Canyon, however, changes the very nature of the search results page. Rather than being a static list of documents deemed by an algorithm to be the most relevant for a query, the search results page becomes an active participant in the process of resolving the user's information needs. Based on the user's actions, Surf Canyon infers intent in real time, dynamically updating the search engine results page.